Childhood is a time of innocence and joy.
The boundless freedom of childhood is wonderful.
Never a care in the world.
Worry is the last thing in the minds of these little ones.
However, this perfect world is sometimes cut short too early by an unwanted, silent visitor preying on their tiny bodies.
Causing anguish, pain and tears.
Cancer is a leading cause of death for children and adolescents around the world and approximately 300,000 children aged 0 to 19 years old are diagnosed with cancer each year. Globally, you are considered a child from birth to 19 years.
Most childhood cancers have no known cause. And in a country where 3,200 children are diagnosed with cancer annually, how can childhood cancer be caught early?
Prof Jessie Githanga, an Associate Professor at the Department of Human Pathology School of Medicine at the University of Nairobi notes that generally most of the childhood cancers cannot be prevented or screened.
Prof Jessie Githanga Associate Professor at the Department of Human Pathology School of Medicine, at the University of Nairobi.
What are the cure rates of childhood cancers?
Prof Githanga notes that there is a subtle difference in the cure rates for childhood cancer diagnosed in high-income countries that record a cure rate of more than 80 per cent, compared to low- and middle-income countries like Kenya that is at only about 20 per cent.
Prof Githanga established the Kenya Childhood Cancer trust and through this a Childhood Cancer Consortium. The goal is to improve awareness, access to care and treatment outcomes of children with cancer in Kenya.
Why are the figures so grim in the low- and middle-income countries, including Kenya?
According to the World Health Organisation, this is because their illnesses are not diagnosed early enough, they are often forced to abandon treatment due to high costs, and the health professionals entrusted with their care lack specialised training.
Whereas early, accurate diagnosis and effective treatment are needed for better outcomes of cancers in children, some of the symptoms are not so obvious to parents, guardians or even teachers.
“Most of the symptoms are non-specific to cancer. They mimic other conditions like tuberculosis, typhoid, pneumonia or other childhood diseases,” Prof Githanga added.
Let’s discuss some of the most common cancers in children. They include;
- Leukemia (blood cancer)
- Lymphoma (cancer of the immune system)
- Kidney cancer (Wilm’s tumour)
- Brain cancer
- Rhabdomyosarcoma (cancer from abnormal growth of muscle cells)
- Neuroblastoma (abnormal growth of immature nerve cells)
- Bone cancer
The signs and symptoms are in some cases specific to the type of cancer, in other cases, they are difficult to catch early enough. Prof Githanga points out some of the symptoms such as;
- An unusual mass or swelling
- Unexplained paleness or worsening rash
- Loss of energy for no obvious reason
- Unusual behaviour or movements
- A sudden tendency to bruise or bleed easily
- Lasting pain in any part of the body
- Unexplained fever that doesn’t go away
- Frequent headaches, often with vomiting
- Sudden eye or vision changes
- Unexpected, rapid weight loss
“Blood cancers can present in children as prolonged fatigue and bone pain whereas, eye cancers known as retinoblastoma can present as a whitish pupil,” Prof Jessie said.
What are the other pointers?
“The lymphoma cancers may present as swellings in the neck or abdomen. When they are misdiagnosed and treated with antibiotics, the swellings will not go away and this calls for a higher index of suspicion,” said Prof Githanga.
In the next article, we explore the treatment and management of some of these childhood cancers.