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Childhood cancer survival rates are highly dependent on where you are in the world

File photo: Tygerberg Hospital offers a unique opportunity for children with childhood cancer to continue their education through the Tygerberg Hospital School. File picture: Cindy Waxa/African News Agency (ANA) Archives

File photo: Tygerberg Hospital offers a unique opportunity for children with childhood cancer to continue their education through the Tygerberg Hospital School. File picture: Cindy Waxa/African News Agency (ANA) Archives

Published Aug 5, 2022


August is proclaimed as “Children’s Health Month”, which covers a wide range of topics or traits that are crucial to a child’s developmental, including cognitive behaviour, emotional stability, a healthy home environment, and community wellbeing.

Every year, an estimated 400 000 children and adolescents aged 0 to 19 develop cancer. Cancer is the leading cause of death for children and adolescents, according to the World Health Organization.

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The likelihood of surviving a childhood cancer diagnosis varies by country: in high-income countries, more than 80% of children with cancer are cured, whereas in many low-income countries, less than 30% are cured.

This is due to a delay in diagnosis, an inability to obtain an accurate diagnosis, inaccessible therapy, treatment discontinuation and avoidable relapse.

Dr Candice Hendricks, a paediatric haematologist and the creator of LMAS (an online platform that educates about cancer and blood disorders), says that we need to improve detection rates for childhood cancer and blood disorders; at the primary healthcare clinic level, as well as the general practitioner level.

“A child never complains about anything; they are always playful; however, if they complain that something is painful or that they are limping and feeling weaker, that should be a red flag that something is wrong.”

We need to be aware of children’s complaints. Image by DC studios from freepik

She goes on to say that we need to prioritise finding more children with cancer because we aren't finding enough of them.

Children with cancer are typically diagnosed and treated for other conditions, and by the time the disease is discovered, it is often too late or even potentially fatal.

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We need to educate those in those areas so that they can recognise the early signs and symptoms of cancer.

Because lymphoma frequently presents with the same symptoms as tuberculosis, such as night sweats, appetite loss, and weight loss, it would not be inaccurate to first rule out tuberculosis in the South African context where this is highly common. However, when TB treatment is started, patients recover quickly within the first few days or weeks of treatment.

As a result, if a child’s condition worsens, you should consider ordering a blood test to identify the cause and possibly refer the child to a higher level of care so that the patient’s condition can be checked for cancer, says Dr Hendricks.

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“Medical students, nurses, and doctors working in the periphery are taught about what to look for to actually detect children’s cancer early. With that teaching comes the knowledge that when you do not know what is going on with a child or the child is not getting better, consider other health issues because if you do not consider them we cannot make a diagnosis.”

That’s why we advocate for widespread awareness of early childhood cancer detection and education, not only at the hospital and healthcare levels but also at the home level, so that perhaps parents can also notice when something is wrong with their kids and take it upon themselves to exercise their right to medical attention.

Although it can be difficult to come to that realisation that something so major could be happening to your child, it is still crucial, shares Hendricks.

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Pick-up or detection rates for adults are obviously higher than for children because adults can speak about any discomfort that they feel, whereas children under the age of 3 cannot communicate their pain, so we must be much more vigilant and acutely aware of signs to look out for in children in particular.

Read the latest issue of IOL Health digital magazine here.