More children survive cancer
In South Africa at least 15,000 new cases of children diagnosed with cancer are reported annually. Thanks to improved methods for cancer detection and newer drugs and more effective treatment methods more children's lives are saved than thirty years ago.
In 1969, no children with leukemia survived it. By 1998 55% of children diagnosed since 1983 and treated at the Tygerberg Hospital's child cancer unit were still alive, said prof. Peter Hesseling, head of the Department of Paediatrics and Child Health of the faculty of health sciences at the University of Stellenbosch.
One in every 75 000 children develop cancer each year. In South Africa every year 15 000 new cases of children with cancer are reported.
Limited survival in Africa
More than 75% of children worldwide, who develop cancer, die unnecessarily because they do not have access to modern therapy. Apart from a few exceptions, no African country or other third world countries' hospitals - where hospitals exist - modern equipment and drugs to treat cancer effectively exists said prof. Hesseling. In the children’s cancer units at the Tygerberg Hospital and Red Cross Children's Hospital - the only two units for all children in the Western Cape, Eastern Cape and parts of Northern Cape who cannot afford private care. - Two new cases per week are diagnosed and treated. The Tygerberg unit is the reference unit for Namibia's child cancer patients.
Cancers in children
The most common cancers among childhood cancer patients in South Africa was leukemia (24%), brain tumours (21%) lymphomas (16%) and kidney cancer (10%) and cancer of the sympathetic nervous system called neuroblastoma. Leukaemia affects the bone marrow where blood stem cells are produced and the white blood cells, and lymphoma attacks the lymphatic system.
The cancers are treated with specific combinations of surgery, radiation and chemotherapy.
The greatest progress has been made in the field of early detection through the detection and identification of specific genetic changes associated with leukemia and other cancers, and better and more effective chemotherapy drugs. Thanks to better chemotherapy drugs there are less radiation done, and the radiation can be accurately directed so that the risk of damaging healthy cells, are reduced, Dr. Felicity Reed of the Tygerberg Children's Oncology Unit, said.
A long term follow up study on children over the past 20 years with cancer treated at Tygerberg Hospital, showed that the survival rate of these patients is the best in Africa, and compares favourably with the best survival rates in Western Europe and other Western countries, according to prof. Glyn Williams, Head of the Paediatric Oncology Unit.
The greatest advances in treatment over the past decade has made the treatment of leukemia, Burkitt lymphoma and all other types of lymphomas survival rate increase the past ten years from 60% to over 80% for leukemia.
The chances of survival for astrocytoma (brain tumour) was 64%, B-cell lymphoma is 80% Kidney cancer is 70% , Neuroblastoma is 52% and for liver cancer is 33%.
Furthermore, the follow-up study showed that most children, who survive cancer, make normal progress at school. Nearly 80% of those children who survived are now - as in any other control group - working adults. Most are healthy.
Only in cases of brain cancer - where the cancer itself, surgery or radiation can cause damage to the brain cells - the survivors are disabled or severely disabled.
Studies have shown that radiotherapy of the brain can influence bone density and that children who have undergone this treatment are more prone to fractures. The risk of changes in growth and puberty and it is not clear whether these effects are long-term effects.
Some chemotherapy drugs have more side effects than others. Some cause infertility in men and children treated with cancer drugs. High doses of other chemotherapy drugs can have toxic effects on the liver, heart, kidney or bone marrow.
Large studies units in foreign countries, where extensive research are done on side effects and efficacy of new chemotherapy drugs, can units such as the Red Cross Children's Hospital and Tygerberg Hospital immediately adjust their treatment to the latest drugs in the best combinations to minimize the side effects.
The Red Cross Children's Hospital and Tygerberg Hospital may still get the best and latest chemotherapy drugs, and offer the best possible survival rate for children with cancer. If their budget is cut, children with more advanced cancer that is currently responding well to the treatment of these cancers and with a poorer chance of recovery, could not be treated, doctors warned.
Typical symptoms that a child may complain about and cause warning lights to flash for parents include the following:
A persistent fever whose origin is unclear;
Leg pains without the child injuring his bumping his legs;
A button like a gland in the neck, under arms, in the groin or a larger mass in the abdomen that does not disappear;
Blood in urine or stools;
Sudden weight loss;
Morning headaches with nausea and vomiting;
A fine red speckeled rash or small red blood spots on the child's body or any unexplained bruises.
Parents should definitely take these complaints of their children seriously. Fatigue, different from what one would expect, is usually not a common symptom for children.