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[LISTEN] Childhood Cancer: Know the Early Warning Signs

Umm Muhammed Umar

Tuesday was National Childhood Cancer Awareness Day. The Department of Health, in collaboration with the South African Children’s Cancer Study Group and the CHOC Childhood Cancer Foundation South Africa, joined the global community in raising awareness about childhood cancer. The Childhood Cancer Foundation’s Lynette Lynette Muthuray spoke to Radio Islam.

Muthuray said that while there was no specific focus for this year’s cancer awareness day, the Childhood Cancer Foundation slogan has always been ‘Have a heart for children with cancer’.

In South Africa nationwide, according to the statistics of the South African Children’s Cancer Study Group, there were about 1000 newly diagnosed children per annum. That’s roughly one in 508 children that are diagnosed with childhood cancer. Meanwhile, internationally, Muthuray said, the statistics were much higher.

Research has not been able to show what causes childhood cancer. Muthuray said, “Childhood cancer develops in the children’s growing cells. It’s not what the parent has eaten. It’s not where they live or being exposed to pollution.” She added, “So there’s no specific research that shows us why children get cancer, but it’s different than adult cancers.” She reiterated that if children with cancer were diagnosed early and underwent treatment early, had a much greater chances of survival.

Muthuray said that internationally and locally, the most common childhood cancer was still leukaemia, followed by brain tumours. Lymphomas (cancer of the lymph glands) were next most common. She said, “You get Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and then you get non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. There are also the other common childhood cancers such as retinal blastoma, which is cancer in the eye. You also get the sarcomas which is cancer in the bone. And then you also get Wilms tumour, which is cancer in the kidney, for instance. Those are just a few of the common childhood cancers in South Africa.”

South Africa, according to Muthuray, has some of the best paediatric oncology units in Africa; and all of the country’s paediatric oncologists form part of the annual science conference where research and studies are presented. She said, “they all form part of multidisciplinary teams in their hospitals, and from province to province, where they consult with other paediatric oncologists.” Muthuray, did, however, add that the reason why children in South Africa were not diagnosed as quickly as in developed countries – leaving the survival rate at only at 55%, while in other countries the survival rate is between 70 to 80% – was because the public did not know the early warning signs of cancer. She said, “But once a child enters a paediatric oncology unit, they are they are treated by some of the best doctors in Africa.” Parents often travel from other parts of Africa to access treatment in South Africa, because of the challenges those other African countries are faced with in paediatric oncology.

Some early warning signs of cancer in a child are:

  • A white spot in the eye, or a new or sudden squint.
  • Recent blindness and or a bulging eyeball.
  • A lump in the abdomen, the pelvis, the head, the neck, the testes and the glands.
  • An unexplained and prolonged fever for two weeks or longer.
  • Loss of weight.
  • Pallor
  • Constant tiredness, or exhaustion.
  • Easy fracturing or bleeding.
  • Aching bones and joints.
  • Neurological signs: deterioration in the child’s work, in balance (eg. the baby was able to walk and now the baby can’t walk anymore), and in speech.
  • Headache with or without early morning vomiting.
  • An enlarged head.

Muthuray said that parents should trust their gut feeling when it came to their children, and get a second or third opinion if they were unhappy with a doctor’s diagnosis of a child’s complaints. She also assured that childhood cancer was more easily treatable than cancer in an adult, as children’s bodies respond better.

Lastly, Mathuray advised community and family members to support families in which a child had cancer. She said, “There’s always ways to support them; practical ways, whether it’s through helping them with a warm meal, giving them a lift to the hospital, providing them with small things that will make the journey easier, because it’s a great financial and emotional burden on a family when a child is diagnosed with cancer.”


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