Childhood Cancer Awareness Month
As a new mum, I feel even more aware of the importance of early detection and treatment of cancer in children.
September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. It is estimated that approximately 4,000 children are diagnosed with cancer every year in the UK.
What is childhood cancer?
Childhood cancer can be defined as cancer – an uncontrolled division of normal cells in a part/s of the body – which affects children and teenagers.
There are a number of different types of childhood cancer. Those which most commonly affect young people include leukaemia, lymphomas and CNS tumours.
How is cancer in children and adults different?
Unlike cancer in adulthood, which is often attributed to lifestyle or environmental risk factors, childhood cancers are believed to often be the result of DNA changes in cells. These changes can take place very early in life, sometimes even before birth.
What can be done to treat childhood cancer?
Thankfully, survival rates have hugely increased over the last few decades meaning that it is believed 4 out of 5 young cancer patients can be successfully treated.
Overall, research suggests that types of childhood cancers tend to respond more positively to treatments such as chemotherapy.
The three most prevalent types of childhood cancer, their symptoms and common treatments are summarised below.
If you or someone you know has a child who is suffering from childhood cancer, you may find the following resources helpful for information and support:
www.headsmart.org.uk – a project to raise awareness of symptoms of brain tumours in young people
www.bloodwise.org.uk – Leukaemia and Lymphoma research
www.chemo-to-the-rescue.com – a children’s book about leukaemia
www.childbereavement.org.uk – support when a child is bereaved or when a child has a terminal illness or dies.
www.childdeathhelpline.org.uk – a helpline for anyone affected by the death of a child
www.dctc.org.uk – makes dreams come true for seriously and terminally ill children across the country
www.leukaemiacare.org.uk – 24 hour dedicated helpline
www.rainbowtrust.org.uk – provide emotional and practical support for families of children with life threatening or terminal illnesses.
What is Leukaemia ?
Leukaemia is a cancer of the blood. The most common form of Leukaemia, Acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL), tends to affect very young children, often under the age of 5.
It is a cancer which affects white blood cells (lymphocytes and myeloid cells). White blood cells are responsible for fighting infection.
In the case of ALL, the repair and replace process of white blood cells becomes disrupted. This means that, whilst cells continue to divide as usual, they do not reach maturity.
Therefore immature cells known as lymphoblasts (cells which typically ‘build’) are overproduced. This causes bone marrow to be filled up – the place where lymphocytes are produced – preventing the marrow from producing healthy blood cells.
What are the symptoms of Leukaemia?
Because white blood cells cannot work properly, children with leukaemia are at a higher risk of infection. Children may develop anaemia and there may be visible symptoms such as bruising, unusual bleeding, tiredness, breathlessness and paleness.
What are Lymphomas?
Lymphomas often grow in places called lymph nodes and other lymph tissues such as the tonsils or thymus. The same cells are affected in children with lymphomas as those with leukaemia.
The difference between leukaemia and lymphomas is the place of development of the cancer – whilst leukaemia develops in the bone marrow and affects regular blood cell production, lymphoma develops in the lymphatic system and does not affect regular blood cell production.
The lymphatic system is also responsible for assisting the body’s immunity. Additionally, it plays a role in the removal or fluid from tissues and the absorption and transportation of fatty acids and fats from the digestive system.
Lymphomas may also affect areas such as bone marrow and other organs.
What are the symptoms of lymphomas?
Lymphomas can cause symptoms such as weight loss, tiredness, fever, sweats and lumps which are a result of swollen lymph nodes. These swollen lymph nodes might typically occur in the neck, armpit or groin areas.
Swollen lymph nodes in adults and children are usually are a sign of the body fighting infection. Therefore, swelling in these areas does not automatically signpost a cancer warning. However, it is always a good idea to visit your GP if you are concerned about your child’s health.
What are CNS tumours?
The CNS (Central Nervous System) includes the brain and spinal cord. CNS tumours are said to be the second most common type of cancer in children.
A tumour can be defined as a swelling of a part of the body caused by abnormal growth of tissue. Tumours can be benign (non- cancerous) or malignant (cancerous)
What are the symptoms of CNS tumours?
Possible symptoms can include: headaches, vomiting, blurred or double vision, nausea, dizziness, difficulty walking or handling objects.
What is the treatment for these childhood cancers?
As with all cancers, treatment is complex and dependant upon individual cases. However, the main mainstream treatments include chemotherapy, radiotherapy and or a stem cell (bone marrow) transplant. This second option usually only applies to high risk cases and radiotherapy is not used routinely.
However many families of those with childhood cancer turn to complementary treatments. These are often used alongside conventional medicine before, during and following mainstream treatment.
The goal of complementary or integrative medicine, is to treat the person as a whole. Integrative medicine can offer support for patients in the form of pain relief, reducing anxiety and improving feelings of calm and well-being overall.
Because a number of symptoms related to these cancers are similar, (including tiredness, anaemia and a reduced immune system function) complementary therapies which might support patients in their recovery include:
A diet rich in foods which support the immune system
This could include foods from organic sources. Furthermore, because children with ALL are said to be at an increased risk for cardiovascular disease and obesity (as complications of their cancer treatment), recommendations to follow a plant-based diet might help to slow or reduce these risks.
Clinical nutrition to further support the immune system
This should always be delivered by a qualified nutitionist in this area as some supplements may have additional side effects and or interefere with other treatments.
Massage is often found to be effective in reducing symptoms such as pain, nausea, fatigue, anxiety and insomnia. It is important to locate a fully qualified massage therapist who will know to avoid certain areas such as those where tumors may be present, areas of infection or with low blood platelet counts.
Traditional Chinese Medicine such as accupuncture to combat feelings of nausea (which can be one of the side effects of chemotherapy, should patients be undergoing this) Research has found that this TCM can be very effective in treating a number of cancer-related symptoms. If used alongside conventional treatments, timing for aspects such as nausea reduction is suggested as being important. For instance, weekly accupuncture sessions 1-2 days prior to the timing of conventional medicine.
Aromatherapy, meditiation or Tai Chi
Whilst these therapies each have a number of potential benefits in their own right, they are also known to be excellent for relaxation and therefore are often used by cancer patients. The less stressed a person, the more chance their immune system has to be its strongest and therefore most able to combat illness.
Additionally, research into physical exercise and children with leukaemia suggests that by tailoring a suitable programme of exercise both during and following treatment may help to reduce treatment side effects such as osteoporosis, weight gain and a decrease in muscle tone. Tai Chi is one very gentle exercise that combines both mind and body benefits.
Whilst there is a school of thought that childhood cancers cannot be prevented in the same way that adults can change their diet, exercise and environment to lower their risk of developing cancer, awareness is key.
Simply being aware of some of the symptoms above and following this through with a health check could be key to early detection.