Early detection is the key to detecting and fighting childhood cancer.
Every day more than 1000 children all over the world are diagnosed with cancer.
Each year, an estimated 400 000 children and adolescents develop cancer. The most common types of childhood cancers include leukemia, brain cancer, lymphomas, and solid tumors, such as neuroblastoma and Wilms tumor.
According to the Global Cancer Observatory, almost 280 000 children and adolescents worldwide were diagnosed with cancer and almost 110 000 children died from cancer in 2020.
Approximately 50,000 children are diagnosed with cancer every year in India—almost one child every 11 minutes.
When five-year-old Sonal (name changed) was diagnosed with cancer her family sold their ancestral house in the village and moved to a rented apartment in the city to save money on frequent travel to the hospital. Her father had already spent all of his savings on her treatment and medical expenses. Still, she weighed less than what she was supposed to — at her age and consumed only 23% of her energy requirements. She also experienced the side effects of chemotherapy, including loss of appetite.
One of the biggest problems that such children with cancer face — is lack of proper nutrition due to ignorance or poverty. Almost 40% of the children are malnourished with a greater risk of infection, side effects, and complications. The complex metabolic disturbances, and changes in the inflammatory and hormonal system trigger alterations in the body which are exacerbated by poor appetite, vomiting, and nausea due to inadequate food intake. As a result, there is a loss of adipose tissue and muscle mass resulting in malnutrition.
Akshay was found to be suffering from acute leukemia at the age of 6 years. His family didn´t have the means to afford the treatment. The doctors too did not give them any false hopes. Right from day one, the odds were against them. His family lived in a small town—quite far away from the nearest big hospital. On top of everything, his parents both daily wagers found it difficult to leave work every odd day and accompany him to the hospital – without a regular income in hand.
They were not the only ones. There are 1000s of other children and adolescents diagnosed with cancer every year – almost 70% of them at a late stage often metastatic due to delay in diagnosis. Many of their parents do not have formal employment or any health insurance to cover the cost of treatment.
Fight against childhood cancer starts with nutrition
Nutrition plays a crucial role in reinforcing the body’s ability to resist and fight cancer and the difference between life and death. Obviously, the survival rate of children with cancer is better than those who are malnourished or can’t digest what they eat – even after the availability of similar treatment. Proper nutrition leads to lesser side effects, complications, and better immunity against infection. This in turn reduces the breaks or delays in treatment and improves the chances of survival. Ironically 80% of parents and caregivers are not aware that proper food is the first step to fighting the disease, considering the fact that a majority of parents in small towns and cities earn less than Rs 10,000 per month.
Proper nutrition helps children with cancer maintain good health with reduced risk of infections and the ability to fight the disease despite therapies like chemotherapy and radiation.
Food is the first medicine for cancer-affected children.
Generally, childhood cancer cannot be prevented or identified through screening but all the same most childhood cancers can be cured with generic medicines and other forms of treatment, including surgery and radiotherapy.
Most of the deaths due to childhood cancers are avoidable and occur mainly because of improper knowledge, neglect, delay in diagnosis, misdiagnosis, limited access to care, death of the patient due to toxicity, and relapse or discontinued treatment. Leukemia happens to be the most common cancer and the leading cause of death among children.
Cancer medicines are available only to one-third of people in low-income countries – but readily available to almost all the people in high-income countries.
Cancer is a leading cause of death for children and adolescents their chances of survival depends on the country where they live. More than 80% of the children in high-income countries are cured, but less than 30% in many poor countries get cured – simply because they did not know that they had the deadly disease or could not afford the treatment and hence left it midway.
Diagnosis of cancer can be a nightmare and a very upsetting experience at any age, especially among children.
Almost 50,000 children are diagnosed with various types of cancer in India every year. India, which has been fairly successful in containing and controlling the spread of many traditional and emerging diseases, is facing a challenge due to the rapidly growing number of cancer patients.
In many other countries, 80-90% of children are able to cope with cancer, but in India, delay in diagnosis, improper health care, inadequate finances, and social atmosphere are the main reasons why many parents simply give up trying – and leave the treatment midway.
Usually, cancer can affect any part of the body of people irrespective of their age. In the initial stages, it may start as a genetic change in a single cell which then grows into a tumor or growth that goes out of control and invades or harms other parts of the body if left untreated. It can even lead to death. Unlike adults, a vast majority of childhood cancers do not have a known cause.
Many studies have tried to identify the causes of childhood cancer. It is also quite clear that very few types of cancer in children are caused by environmental or lifestyle factors. The only way out is to pay attention to behaviors that can prevent children from developing preventable variants of cancer like adults.
Some chronic infections, such as HIV, Epstein-Barr virus, and malaria also increase the risk factors for childhood cancer, particularly in the economically weaker sections of societies and low-income countries. Such chronic infections can increase the risk of cancer hence it is advisable to be vaccinated against hepatitis B to help prevent liver cancer and against human papillomavirus to help prevent cervical cancer.
Also Read: Early diagnosis – the key to fight cancer
Some studies have also shown that genetic factors were among the cause of cancer in about 10% of children. This needs to be substantiated to identify the risks that lead to cancer among children.
Hence it is the duty of every parent to continuously and carefully observe the common tell-tale signs of cancer that their child –might be suffering from – even right now. These include persistent fatigue, headaches, pain or swelling in joints, and limbs, fever, night sweats, swollen lymph nodes in the neck or armpits as well as bruising or bleeding. If these symptoms persist it is important to visit a pediatric oncologist at the earliest possible.
According to Dr. S Jayanthi, Senior Pediatric Oncologist, at Kamineni Hospitals, Hyderabad, “the point to remember is that even while many childhood illnesses are caused by viruses, it is also possible for children to develop cancer. Hence parents need to be aware of the sign and symptoms of cancer in their child such as frequent infections, serious viral infections, weight loss, poor appetite, headaches, or unexplained fever that won’t go away. These conditions can easily be mistaken for other illnesses but if they persist it is necessary to consult the pediatric oncologist without wasting time.
Some of the most types of cancer – commonly found in children are leukemias, lymphomas, malignant epithelial neoplasms, spinal cord tumors, and kidney tumors.
Out of these leukemia and brain/spinal tumors such as Ewing Sarcoma are among the most common forms of cancer found in children.
Leukemia and lymphoma are among the newer variants of cancer recently found to be affecting a large number of children.
“Early detection is by far the best way to treat childhood cancers” she added. Early detection improves the outcome of treatment and can even save lives.
Hence according to her, it is absolutely important that parents should observe changes in their child’s body such as unusual lumps or bumps, persistent headaches, vomiting, weight loss, or fatigue, and consult with their pediatrician who may if necessary refer them to a pediatric oncologist as soon as possible if required or if they notice any abnormal symptoms in their child.
For proper diagnosis of blood cancers such as leukemia bone marrow tests are required. Red blood cells can also help in the diagnosis of certain types of childhood cancer in the initial stages if the parents and caregivers are aware and seek medical advice quickly.
One of the ways to detect childhood cancer among children is to observe changes in children’s eyes, especially a white glow. Every year, thousands of children across the world are diagnosed with eye cancer, called retinoblastoma. It is the most common type of eye cancer and can at once affect both eyes. The symptoms include changes like- a white glow which can be seen when light is shone into the pupil or shadows appearing within the pupil. Parents and caregivers should also look out for vision problems or redness, swelling, and pain in one or both eyes.
Hence February 15th every year is observed as International Childhood Cancer Day. The idea is to educate the parents and caretakers and specifically make them aware of the lurking danger — cancers that might be just around the corner.
The aim is to improve the chances of survival from childhood cancer to at least 60% by 2030 and to reduce the suffering of all children with cancer.
The World Health Organization has coined the phrase “Close the Care Gap” for 2023.