Tackling childhood cancer
Childhood Cancer is the leading cause of death in children under 18 and is actually a collection of diseases. Children are diagnosed with many different forms of cancer. Every day in Nigeria, 46 children are diagnosed with cancer. Each year in Nigeria, approximately 5,400 children between the ages of birth and 19 years of age are diagnosed with cancer.
According to Dr. Sylvester Dode, a Paediatrician with the Ellz Women and Children Hospital in Lagos, there is no known cause of childhood cancer, and it occurs regularly and randomly across all ethnic groups as some children are even born with cancer.
There are 12 major types of cancer that can affect the bones, muscle, blood, liver, kidney, brain, or even the eyes, however, the common adult cancers (lung, breast, colon, etc.) rarely occur in children or adolescents. Among the 12 major types, Leukemias (cancer in the blood) and brain tumours account for more than half of all cases. The median age at diagnosis is six years old and some forms of paediatric cancer have a five-year survival rate of more than 90 per cent, while others have a five-year survival rate of less than two per cent.
On the effects of childhood cancer, the paediatrician said, “many adult cancer patients endure no more than a year of treatment. On the other hand, the average length of treatment for children, from the initial diagnosis to cure or remission, is three years. If the child experiences a relapse, the treatment time could possibly be extended over many years with a potentially lowered prognosis.
“In 80 per cent of cases, a child’s cancer diagnosis is delayed until the disease is very advanced and has spread to other parts of the body. As a stark comparison, this only occurs in 20 per cent of adult cancer cases. Childhood cancers tend to be more aggressive than adult cancers, so this late diagnosis can significantly affect the 5-year survival probability of the child.”
Dr. Dode stressed that out of every four children diagnosed, one will not survive the past five years and three will have life-long complications due to aggressive treatments for their cancer. When treatment stops, an entirely different battle begins, “because children’s bodies are still developing, toxic therapies damage more than just the cancer cells. Young cancer survivors live the remainder of their lives with the side effects of their initial treatments. A few of these side effects are: delayed or disrupted cognitive development, stunted growth, damaged speech and/or hearing, infertility and endocrine dysfunction, learning disabilities and physical handicaps due to nerve damage or amputation.”
He noted that chemotherapy and radiation make children feel sick and weak. They also make hair fall out. This can be very scary and makes children with cancer feel different from their peers. Often, these children are also coping with major trust issues, since the world no longer feels safe.
“Doctors who have specialised in treating paediatric cancer patients can best help children with cancer. These specialised treatment centers are spread across the country, so families must travel to get the best treatment for their children and this puts a financial, emotional, and social strain on the parents. Parents can spend over 40 hours per week caring for their sick child.
“Studies have even shown that mothers of a child with cancer may exhibit symptoms similar to those of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The effects on parents are almost always long term. If the child dies, parents deal with difficult and long-lasting grief. If the child lives, parents may still have to care for a child who has mild, moderate or severe physical or emotional late effects. They may spend the rest of their lives helping their child deal with those issues,” Dr. Dode added.