Cancers are malignant (malicious) growths or tumours caused by abnormal and uncontrolled cell division which may spread to other parts of the body through the lymphatic system or the blood stream.
An arbitrarily adopted standard of the ages used if they are childhood cancers, are 0–14 years inclusive, that is, up to 14 years 11.9 months of age.
Paediatric oncology is the branch of medicine concerned with the diagnosis and treatment of cancer in children.
Cancer isn’t fair at any age, but perhaps no cancer is more emotionally devastating than those that occur in children. Worldwide, it is estimated that childhood cancer has an incidence of more than 250,000 per year, and a mortality rate of approximately 98,000 per year. Death from Childhood Cancer is second only to death from accidents according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).
In low resource settings such as developing countries, mortality is a high as 80% – 90% especially in the world’s poorest countries. This high mortality is explained by low human resources, lack of infrastructures, poverty and mostly by ignorance.
Causes of Childhood Cancers
The types of cancers that develop in children are different from those that develop in adults. Lifestyle or environmental risk factors do not play a role in Childhood Cancer. Childhood Cancer generally occurs as the result of DNA changes in cells that take place very early in life. Thus they can appear at a very early age.
In a small percentage of childhood cancers, familial or genetic factors are thought to predispose the child to cancer. An even smaller percentage of childhood cancer has an identified environmental link.
- Identified familial and genetic factors 5-15%;
- Environmental exposures & exogenous factors <5-10%;
- Unknown causes 75-90%.
The most common cancers in children are:
- Leukaemia (34%);
- Brain Tumours (23%);
- Lymphomas (12%)
In Rwanda, however, nephroblastoma is the most prevalent.
How Childhood Cancers Present
Since most of the symptoms of cancer can also be attributed to benign conditions, the diagnosis of cancer can be a long process. Parents must trust and work as a team with health professionals, using their knowledge of their child and health professional’s knowledge of medicine.
There are different types of Childhood Cancers; some progress rapidly and others slowly.
Here are warning signs of childhood cancers:
- Continued unexplained weight loss;
- Headaches, often with early morning vomiting;
- Increased swelling or persistent pain in bones, joints, back, or legs;
- Lump or mass, especially in the abdomen, neck, chest, pelvis, or armpits;
- Development of excessive bruising, bleeding, or rash; and
- Constant infections.
Others signs include; a whitish colour behind the pupil; nausea which persists or vomiting without nausea; constant tiredness or noticeable paleness and recurrent or persistent fevers of unknown origin.
Childhood Cancers arising from blood, kidney, brain and eyes are going undiagnosed until late stages even though they present so early, especially in developing countries, leading to a high mortality rate in cancers that generally show up to an 80% survival rate in developed countries.
We need to understand the character and presentations of Childhood Cancers. As with all cancers, relieving the pain, symptoms, and distress of cancer experienced by children (palliative care), and their families is as important as treating the disease itself.
Survivors of Childhood Cancers face massive challenges – around 66% of children with Childhood Cancers suffer long-term effects from treatment, including secondary cancers, learning disabilities, loss of hearing and sight, heart disease, and more.
One of the Little Fighters Cancer Trust’s main objectives is to share knowledge about Early Warning Signs of Childhood Cancer by sharing information as widely as possible in an effort to make the public as well as medical personnel more aware of the Early Warning Signs, thereby saving thousands of lives.