For most parents, few things are as frightening as hearing from the doctor that their child has cancer. Yet, they must also face the task of trying by all means to understand their child’s diagnosis.
According to Charity Kawadza, the health programmes officer at Kidzcan, the biggest challenges facing children with cancer are misconceptions surrounding cancer.
Kidzcan is a Zimbabwean organisation dedicated to increasing the survival rate of children with cancer.
“Parents tend to bring their children when they are severely ill because they would have minimised the children’s illness from the time the child shows any symptoms of illness.
“Some tend to think that children can never suffer from cancer. Also if they discover that their child is ill they will not consult a doctor but in most cases they consult traditional healers.
There is nothing wrong with consulting traditional healers but they should know that there are some conditions which demand health care,” said Kawadza.
According to the Zimbabwe National Cancer Registry 151 childhood cancer cases (0-14 years) were recorded in 2006. Most of them, 89, were boys and 62 were girls.
According to a report by Kidzcan, they assisted 260 children with cancers between 2009 and 2011. Out of the 260 children, 13% presented with Wilms Tumor, 10% Kaposi Sarcoma, 9% Retinoblastoma, 7% Brain Tumour and 7% had Lymphomas.
Kawadza said they had 160 children who suffering from cancer.
“The types of cancers that develop in children are often different from the types that develop in adults. The most common types of childhood cancers include leukemias, brain cancers, lymphomas and solid tumours,” said Kawadza.
According to research, cancer begins with genetic change in single cells that then grow into a mass or tumour. The tumour invades other parts of the body and causes harm and death if left untreated.
Unlike cancer in adults, the vast majority of 75 percent of childhood cancers do not have a known cause.
A few conditions, such as Down syndrome, other specific chromosomal and genetic abnormalities, and ionizing radiation exposures, explain a small percentage of cases.
According to the National Cancer Institute (2012), a number of studies are examining suspected or possible risk factors for childhood cancers, including early-life exposures to infectious agents; parental, fetal, or childhood exposures to environmental toxins such as pesticides, solvents, or other household chemicals, parental occupational exposures to radiation or chemicals, parental medical conditions during pregnancy or before conception, maternal diet during pregnancy, early postnatal feeding patterns and diet and maternal reproductive history.
Although the Cancer Association of Zimbabwe (CAZ) states that 80 percent of childhood cancer cases can be successfully treated in Zimbabwe many children continue to die from childhood cancers due to late diagnosis.
To raise the survival rate of children suffering from cancer in Zimbabwe, parents, medical staff in clinics and hospitals must be alert to the early signs of children’s cancer.
“Because it is generally not possible to prevent cancer in children, the most effective strategy to reduce the burden of cancer in children and improve outcomes is to focus on a prompt, correct diagnosis followed by effective, evidence-based therapy with tailored supportive care,” said Kawadza.
According to Louis Mpofu, an oncologist based in Bulawayo, most childhood cancers can be cured with generic medicines and other forms of treatment, including surgery and radiotherapy.
“Treatment of childhood cancer can be cost-effective in all income settings. Avoidable deaths from childhood cancers result from lack of diagnosis, misdiagnosis or delayed diagnosis, obstacles to accessing care, abandonment of treatment, and death from toxicity, and higher rates of relapse,” he said.
Improving access to childhood cancer care, including essential medicines and technologies, can improve survival in all settings.
According to Kawadza children can also be cured if symptoms are identified early.
“Parents should look out for an unusual lump or swelling. Unexplained paleness and loss of energy. Easy bruising or bleeding. An ongoing pain in one area of the body. Limping. Unexplained fever or illness that doesn’t go away.
Frequent headaches, often with vomiting. Sudden eye or vision changes,” said Kawadza.
“Meanwhile parents should know that children know when they are sick. They should know that children are resilient, they respond to chemotherapy better than adults.
In the fight against cancer children need love, age appropriate information, school, play, drawing and colouring, letter writing and communication. They want to be treated normal not special. They want to know the truth,” she added.