Childhood Cancer is uncommon, yet nearly 100,000 children under 15 die from cancer worldwide every year – that is almost 250 children EVERY DAY!! This is a jaw-dropping statistic given that about 80% of childhood cancers are potentially curable with existing treatments.
Between 800 and 1 000 South African children under the age of 15 are diagnosed with cancer each year. If detected early, most children can be treated successfully. Unfortunately, many children are either diagnosed too late or not at all, which means that too many children in South Africa are dying!
Childhood Cancer can occur in any part of the body, including the kidneys, blood and lymph node system, brain and spinal cord (central nervous system; CNS), and other organs and tissues.
Cancer occurs when healthy cells change and grow out of control. In most types of cancer, these cells form a mass called a tumour, which can be cancerous or benign. A cancerous tumour is malignant, meaning it can grow and spread to other parts of the body. A benign tumour means the tumour can grow but will not spread to distant parts of the body.
In leukaemia, a cancer of the blood that starts in the bone marrow, these abnormal cells very rarely form a solid tumour. Instead, these cells crowd out other types of cells in the bone marrow. This prevents the production of:
- Normal red blood cells. Cells that carry oxygen to tissues.
- White blood cells. Cells that fight infection.
- Platelets. The part of the blood needed for clotting.
Most of the time, there is no known cause for childhood cancers. Childhood cancers may behave very differently from adult cancers, even when they start in the same part of the body.
Types of Childhood Cancer
While there are a few other very rare cancers that children can get, the most common childhood cancers are:
- Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia
- Acute Myeloid Leukaemia (AML)
- Brain Tumours
- Ewing’s Sarcoma
- Hodgkin’s Lymphoma
- Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma (NHL)
- Wilm’s Tumour
Of the above, the FIVE most common cancers in children are:
1. Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia (ALL)
Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia (ALL) is the most common childhood cancer and accounts for about 34% of all cancers in children. ALL typically occurs between the ages of 2 and 4, and is more common in males than females. Leukaemia begins in the bone marrow and spreads to the blood, from where it can then spread to the organs. Three out of four childhood leukaemia cases are ALL.
- Bone and joint pain
- Weight loss
2. Brain Tumours
Brain Tumours and other nervous system tumours make up about 27% of childhood cancers. There are many types of brain tumours and the treatment and outlook for each is different. Most brain tumours in children start in the lower parts of the brain, such as the cerebellum or brainstem. Although brain tumours are typically different in children as opposed to adults, many of the symptoms remain the same.
- Balance problems
- Vision, hearing or speech problems
- Frequent vomiting
Neuroblastoma arises from immature nerve cells in infants and young children. Primarily found in children younger than 5, this disease often begins in the adrenal glands and makes up 7% of childhood cancers in the US. It’s more common in males than females, and only 1-2 % of children with this disease have a family history of it.
- Impaired ability to walk
- Changes in eyes (bulging, dark circles, droopy eyelids)
- Pain in various locations of the body
- High blood pressure
4. Wilms Tumours
Wilms Tumours start in the kidneys and are the most common type of paediatric kidney cancer. Wilms tumours usually only form in one kidney, but can sometimes form in both, and accounts for about 5% of all paediatric cancers. This disease is typically found in very young children – 3 to 4 years old – and is not common in children over 6.
- Swelling or lump in the belly
- Poor appetite
Lymphoma starts in certain cells of the immune system called lymphocytes. These cancers affect lymph nodes and other lymph tissues, like the tonsils or thymus. They can also affect the bone marrow and other organs, and can cause different symptoms depending on where the cancer is growing.
There are 2 main types of lymphoma:
- Hodgkin Lymphoma, sometimes called Hodgkin’s disease, is rare in children younger than 5 years of age. This type of cancer is very similar in children and adults, including which types of treatment work best.
- Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma is more likely to occur in younger children than Hodgkin lymphoma, but it is still rare in children younger than 3. The most common types of non-Hodgkin lymphoma in children are different from those in adults. These cancers often grow quickly and require intensive treatment, but they also tend to respond better to treatment than most non-Hodgkin lymphomas in adults.
- Swollen lymph nodes in the neck, armpit, or groin
- Weight loss