Childhood Cancer: A Rare Diagnosis That Is Highly Treatable

A cancer diagnosis is difficult for anyone, but it is especially so when the person diagnosed is a child or young person. The thought of someone having to undergo such a challenging journey in their early years is truly sobering.

Thankfully, childhood cancer is no longer the threat it was 50 or 60 years ago. Advances in science and modern medicine have made it easier for young patients these days to receive effective and affordable treatments.

In conjunction with World Childhood Cancer Day today, FMT Lifestyle spoke with Subang Jaya Medical Centre (SJMC) consultant paediatric haematologist/oncologist Dr Chan Lee Lee to gain a deeper understanding of this disease.

According to Chan, incidences of childhood cancer are relatively rare, especially compared with cancer in adults. “In the developed world, about 150 children in every million will develop cancer. As a whole, childhood cancer makes up less than 3% of all cancers ever diagnosed,” she said.

“The latest Malaysian data shows about 77 children per million in the country will get cancer, but I have a feeling these figures are underreported.”

World Childhood Cancer Day was created in 2002 by Childhood Cancer International, the largest global patient-support organisation for childhood cancer. According to the organisation, over 400,000 children and adolescents under 20 are diagnosed with cancer each year.

In recent years, incidences of the disease have slowly been climbing worldwide. This could be owing to factors such as increased environmental pollution, coupled with improved cancer reporting and better diagnostic methods.

Chan shared that cancers such as leukaemia, brain cancer and lymphoma are more commonly found in children, even though they have also been reported in adults. Other cancers such as neuroblastoma and retinoblastoma usually only occur in young patients.

“Some cancers such as bone tumours, and kidney or liver cancers can occur in both children and adults,” she added.

Depending on the type of cancer, how the disease presents itself will vary. For example, symptoms for lymphoma and leukaemia – the most common form of childhood cancer – include fever that does not go away for weeks, paleness, and/or bruises.

Signs of brain cancer, on the other hand, include headaches, personality changes, and abnormalities in gait. “These are things that will need medical attention,” Chan stressed.

“Don’t be intimidated by the word ‘chemotherapy’. Childhood cancer is highly treatable," shares Dr Chan. 

Treatment and misconceptions

Treatment times, too, will differ; for example, childhood leukaemia usually requires about two years.

During this period, Chan noted that it is common for parents to face logistical challenges, for instance in regularly sending their children for medical procedures; or, for those in rural areas, getting access to sufficient care.

The good news is, the survival rate of children with a cancer diagnosis is as high as 80-90% today. When it comes to treatment, Chan cited chemotherapy as the primary method, while immunotherapy drugs and stem-cell transplants might also be used, albeit less frequently.

“Once chemotherapy has shrunk a tumour to a reasonable size, this is followed by surgery, and then more chemo. We try to avoid radiation as much as we can to avoid side effects, but sometimes this isn’t possible.”

Asked about myths and misconceptions about childhood cancer, Chan said such cancers cannot be inherited, and have nothing to do with a child’s diet or lifestyle. Vaccinations are also a very useful tool: for example, those against the human papillomavirus (HPV) can prevent cervical cancer.

Chan also advised parents to remember that children are very resilient. “If you tell an adult about chemotherapy, they will have their own fears and anxieties about the process. But most children don’t have that; they take things in their stride.

“After treatment, they can easily go back to regular life with few major long-term effects.”

She concluded: “Childhood cancer is highly treatable. Don’t be intimidated by the word ‘chemotherapy’. Treatment is available and cure rates are high, so we encourage parents to get their children all the help they might need.”

Source: Free Malaysia Today