Thu | Oct 21, 2021

Beating childhood cancer

Published:Wednesday | September 22, 2021 | 12:05 AMKeisha Hill/Senior Gleaner Writer

SEPTEMBER IS Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, a time to recognise the children and families affected by childhood cancers and to emphasise the importance of supporting research on these devastating conditions.

This month, and throughout the year, the children currently battling cancer, the families who love them, the clinicians and other caregivers treating them, the survivors of childhood cancer, the children who lost their lives to childhood cancer, and the researchers working to conquer childhood cancer are recognised.

According to the American Cancer Society, approximately 10,500 children in the United States of America under the age of 15 will be diagnosed with cancer this year alone. The past few decades have brought promising treatments and advancements in the fight against paediatric cancer that have improved outcomes and saved lives. Still, more than 1,000 families could experience the loss of a child from cancer in 2021.

Until there is a cure for every type of cancer at any stage, young patients along with their parents, siblings, family and friends face a terrifying battle. There is still so much more to accomplish, and until we defeat paediatric cancer once and for all, bringing awareness and funding research can help doctors continue to make life-saving progress.

To a family facing a cancer battle with their child, it could mean a chance for their child to graduate from kindergarten, from high school, and eventually a chance for their child to grow up and raise a family of their own.

Childhood cancer is devastating to growth and development in children.

According to Dr Debra Hall-Parkinson, consultant paediatrician, the physical symptoms of childhood cancer, along with the treatment, may result in serious emotional, mental and social effects for the child.

“The cancer itself and the treatment may be debilitating and can result in physical disfigurement such as hair loss, skin changes and sometimes loss of limbs. This can lead to depression, as well as low self-esteem. Treatment-related pain can also cause depression. Children may also develop anxiety relating to cancer and chemotherapy,” Hall-Parkinson said.

Children, she said, may also develop fear of doctors, nurses, needles and anything else that may be hospital related. They may also develop fear of being in the hospital, oftentimes away from their family and friends in an unfamiliar environment, which can often lead to apprehension.

“Being away from their families can lead to withdrawal and self-isolation. Some children may develop behavioural problems in the long term and may have difficulty re-establishing peer relationships. They may, in the long term, have academic difficulties as a result of the cancer itself or its treatment or from the prolonged absenteeism from school,” Hall-Parkinson said.

Parents of childhood cancer patients have the anguish of watching their children suffer, and the stress of decisions on medications and treatments, as well as decisions on time of work for themselves and time off school for the child, and trying to explain to a child what is happening to them and answering the resulting questions on life and faith, and worst of all is the loss of a child to cancer, a devastation that can never be put right.

According to Dr Hall-Parkinson, awareness and education of childhood cancer is important for both parents and children to recognise the symptoms of cancer. This, she said, will hopefully prevent delays in diagnosis, early access to treatment and better chances of survival.

“Parents often go through a myriad of emotions related to finding out their child has cancer; emotions such as fear, anger, guilt and sadness. It is therefore important to give them hope. Hope is an important part of coping, and this comes through support from family and friends. Parents and children should also be made aware of support groups so that they do not feel as if they are alone in the experience,” she said.

Parents, she said, also need support with everyday needs such as helping to run household errands, which may lift some of their burden. “Financial support is also important because a cancer diagnosis can cause incredible financial strain due to expensive treatments and loss of jobs, and as a result of having to take care of their child. Children will also benefit from support from their peers and teachers who may try to help them academically and maintain ties so that do not become socially withdrawn,” Hall-Parkinson said.

Some forms of cancer are mainly or exclusively only seen in children, and that is something highlighted by the awareness month. Children can be more resilient to cancer and cancer treatments than adults, and there are many cases of triumph and complete recovery, where children make a complete recovery and grow up to normal life. But awareness, education and support are vital, which is why Childhood Cancer Awareness Month is also vital.

keisha.hill@gleanerjm.com

SOURCE: World Health Organization; American Cancer Society, Jamaica Cancer Society.

TYPES OF CANCER THAT DEVELOP IN CHILDREN

The types of cancers that occur most often in children are different from those seen in adults. The most common cancers of children are:

• Leukaemia

• Brain and spinal cord tumours

• Neuroblastoma

• Wilms tumour

• Lymphoma (including both Hodgkin and non-Hodgkin)

• Rhabdomyosarcoma

• Retinoblastoma

• Bone cancer (including osteosarcoma and Ewing sarcoma)

Other types of cancers are rare in children, but they do happen sometimes. In very rare cases, children may even develop cancers that are much more common in adults. When identified early, cancer is more likely to respond to effective treatment and result in a greater probability of survival, less suffering, and often less expensive and less intensive treatment. Significant improvements can be made in the lives of children with cancer by detecting cancer early and avoiding delays in care. A correct diagnosis is essential to treat children with cancer because each cancer requires a specific treatment regimen that may include surgery, radiotherapy, and chemotherapy.