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26 October 2005

Childhood cancer: Know the facts

More than a thousand children in South Africa die of cancer each year. Here are the facts and early warning signs of childhood cancer.

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A thousand children in South Africa will die of cancer this year without having been treated for it.

This tragic loss of young lives is due to one truth: too few adults know what the early signs of childhood cancer are.

Here are the facts.

  • As many as one in 600 children develop life-threatening cancer
  • Less than half the victims are correctly diagnosed.
  • If diagnosed early and treated correctly, about seven out of 10 cases of childhood cancer can be cured.
  • Children fall victim to cancers that differ from the ones that develop in adults.
  • Most childhood cancers begin in developing cells, like bone marrow, blood, kidneys and tissues of the nervous system.
  • Leukaemia, a blood disease, is the most common childhood cancer. Brain tumours are the second most common. There is also a wide variety of other tumours to which children are prone.
  • Life-threatening blood disorders include aplastic anaemia, thalassaemia and ITP.
  • The usual treatment depends on chemotherapy, surgery or radiation - Sometimes, all three treatments are combined.
  • Some cases require bone-marrow or stem-cell transplants.
  • Every case depends on expert treatment at a specialised children’s unit where management and care are available. These units are generally linked to the main academic hospitals.
  • Travel between home and clinic complicates most cases, adding further strain and emotional stress to the family in what is already an overwhelming circumstance.

The warning signs
The South African Children’s Cancer Study Group has prepared a list of warning signs for distribution to primary health care centres. The list has been adopted by the International Society of Paediatric Oncology (SIOP) for distribution throughout developing countries. The signs are named after Saint Siluan, a Russian monk who prayed ceaselessly for all humanity:

  • S is for Seek. Seek medical help early for persistent symptoms.
  • I is for Eye. A white spot in the eye, new squint, blindness or bulging eyeball call for urgent investigation.
  • L is for Lump. The abdomen and pelvis, head and neck, limbs, testes and glands must be examined often.
  • U is for Unexplained. Fever, loss of weight and appetite, pallor, fatigue, easy bruising or bleeding - all need thorough investigation.
  • A is for Aching. Bones, joints, back and easy fractures.
  • N is for Neurological signs. Changes in behaviour, balance and gait. Failure to reach developmental milestones, headache with or without vomiting, enlarging head. Investigation is vital when these signs are present.
 
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