Cancer can occur in anyone – including babies. The greatest challenge in dealing with childhood cancer in Kenya is the late diagnosis of this condition. Most parents do not recognise the early symptoms of cancer in their children and most health care practitioners are not on the lookout for subtle ominous signs when performing check-ups on babies. Cancer symptoms can be very similar to those of other childhood illnesses, including the flu. One needs to be very thorough and observant to detect cancer in babies.
Can childhood cancers be prevented?
Most parents whose children have cancer always wonder if they could have prevented it. Usually, there is little you can do to prevent your child from getting cancer. Unlike most adult cancers, lifestyle-related risk factors (such as smoking, obesity, diet) don't influence a child’s risk of getting cancer.
Radiation exposure and genetic factors have been linked to some childhood cancers. Children with medical conditions such as Down's syndrome are more likely to get certain cancers such as leukemia than other children.
Common childhood cancers
Leukemia is cancer of the bone marrow (this is the inner part of the bone which is responsible for producing blood cells). It is the most common cancer in children and account for about 30 per cent of all cancers. There are three main types of blood cells: white cells (responsible for immunity), red cells (carry oxygen) and platelets (responsible for clotting).
In leukemia, abnormal white blood cells multiply out of control. Since they are abnormal, they cannot maintain the immunity and fight infections as they should. Symptoms of leukemia can be very non-specific and can even resemble a persistent bad flu. These symptoms include persistent fever, loss of appetite, weight loss, generalised weakness, dizzy spells, joint pain, swollen nodes, abdominal pain, frequent nose bleeds, headache and frequent infections.
Brain and spinal cord tumors Brain and tumors of the nervous system are the second most common cancers in children. There are many types of brain tumors and common symptoms include persistent headaches, vomiting, nausea, seizures, walking and balance problems, growth retardation, vision problems, sleep challenges, clumsiness, weakness, development of squints, back and neck pain, changes in personality, irritability and hormonal abnormalities which could lead to early puberty.
A few tumors can cause excessive thirst or changes in urination patterns. The seizures that occur in brain tumors are not usually related to fever.
Wilms tumor (also called nephroblastoma) is a cancer of the kidneys. It can affect one or both kidneys. It often occurs in children under the age of five years and presents with an abdominal swelling and pain. There may be vomiting, persistent fever, blood in urine (or dark coloured urine), constipation and unusual fatigue.
Lymphomas Lymphomas start in blood cells known as lymphocytes. Lymphocytes are a subtype of white cells which are responsible for maintaining a healthy immune system. Lymphoma affects lymph nodes, abdominal organs like the spleen and even tonsils and the thymus.
Most parents with children with lymphoma notice swollen lymph nodes, especially in the neck, armpit or groin, constant fatigue, weakness, persistent fever, unexplained weight loss, abdominal pain and swelling. In some case, there may be problems swallowing and breathing.
Rhabdomyosarcoma is a cancer that develops in the muscles. It can, therefore, be found in the arms, legs, belly, chest, head or neck. In most cases, it presents as a lump in the arms, lower limbs or groin area. If it affects the head or neck, it can cause problems swallowing and can produce facial swelling. If it is in the belly, it can cause discomfort with an associated swelling.
Retinoblastoma is a cancer of the eye. Interestingly, this is the cancer which most parents are able to detect earliest. This is because it causes some distinct eye changes. Normally, when you shine a light into a child’s eye, the pupil (the dark spot in the center of the eye), looks red. In an eye with retinoblastoma, the pupil often looks white.
This abnormality is best detected on a photograph of the child where the inside of one eye may look red whilst the other looks white. The child may also have crossed eyes or a persistent irritation in the eye.
There are two main types of bone cancers occur in children: Osteosarcoma and Ewing Sarcoma. They commonly develop around the knee, on the hips/pelvis, ribs or shoulder blades. They cause a swelling/lump in this area. This swelling can be painful and interfere with normal movement and activity. The bones may become weak and break (fracture). There may also be some non-specific symptoms like fever, fatigue and weight loss.
Neuroblastoma is another cancer that affects nerve cells. It can cause a swelling in the abdomen, fever and pain.
Cancer is not contagious
There is a lot of stigma surrounding cancer and it is not unusual for children with cancer to be isolated due to ignorance. Some people believe that cancer is contagious and can be passed on from child to child through contact, coughing/sneezing or sharing utensils. Cancer is not infectious and your child cannot get it from another one.
What should you do?
If you are concerned about your child's symptoms, please seek medical advice – especially if you are dealing with non-specific symptoms which you cannot quite understand. Look carefully at your child's photos and check for any eye abnormalities.