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Safer treatments urgently needed for child cancer patients

A post on Facebook by the bereaved parent of a child who tragically died of cancer that reads: “I want my old life back, the one with my child in it”, is unfortunately still the sad reality faced by many families, even though in developed countries the overall survival rate for childhood cancer is now more than 80%.

For some types of cancer and in developing countries like South Africa, the rate is much lower. There are some childhood cancers for which there is no treatment, and which are uniformly fatal.

Another harsh reality, according to Professor Jan du Plessis, head of the Paediatric Oncology Unit at the University of the Free State (UFS), is that some of those who do survive cancer can go on to suffer long-term (sometimes lifelong) health issues as a result of their treatment. Almost all cancer treatments used in children today were actually developed for adults. Most (such as chemotherapy or radiotherapy) target all fast-growing cells (not just cancer cells), and this leads to harsh side effects in young, growing bodies.

Du Plessis says the need for more effective and safer treatments for children is urgent. Despite better outcomes for children diagnosed with cancer, some do not survive. Currently, between 800 and 1 000 South African children are diagnosed with cancer annually. However, it is estimated that half of the children with cancer in this country are never diagnosed, according to the Cancer Association of South Africa (CANSA).

Different types of childhood cancer

Children can get many different types of cancer. Some of the most common are:
• Leukaemia – cancer of the blood and bone marrow, the most common childhood cancer.
• Brain cancer – the second most common childhood cancer. It kills more children than any other type of cancer.
• Neuroblastoma and nephroblastoma – the most common solid tumours diagnosed in children under five.
• Sarcoma – grows in the bones and connective tissues of the body.
• Lymphoma – cancer that develops in the lymphatic system.

St Siluan warning signs of childhood cancer

The CHOC Childhood Cancer Foundation South Africa says research has shown that an ongoing awareness campaign on the early warning signs is needed to improve the rate of referrals at an earlier stage of the disease. It is for this reason that 15 February (International Childhood Cancer Day) and the month of September, which marks Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, are important for raising awareness.

“It is not possible to prevent cancer in children, but significant improvements can be made in their lives by detecting cancer early and avoiding delays in care,” said Du Plessis. “Correct diagnosis is important to treat these children, because each cancer involves a specific treatment regimen that may include surgery, radiotherapy, and chemotherapy.

“To improve early diagnosis, we try to educate people, using the St Siluan warning signs for childhood cancer.”
• S – Seek medical help early for ongoing symptoms
• I – White spot in the eye, new squint, sudden blindness or bulging eyeball
• L – Lump on the stomach, pelvis, head, arms, legs, testicle, or glands
• U – Unexplained fever present for more than two weeks, weight loss, fatigue, pale appearance, easy bruising, and bleeding
• A – Aching bones, joints, back, and easy fractures
• N – Neurological signs, a change in walk, balance or speech, regression, continuous headaches with/without vomiting and enlarged head

Du Plessis’ hope is to diagnose these kids early – the earlier they are diagnosed, the less treatment they are exposed to. It is amazing to see how cancer kids adapt to their new normal and reality, he says.

“They play soccer in the corridor, not in the park. In fact, one learnt to walk in the hospital. Nurses and doctors become their new family. Their joy, strength and resilience are remarkable. Their laughter will make your heart melt. Your life will be forever changed when you see a child fight cancer.”

Issued by University of the Free State




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