Every cell in the body has a mechanism that manages its growth, interaction with other cells, and its life. When a cell loses that control and grows in a peculiar way that the body can no longer regulate, it is termed as Cancer. There are various types of cancers, each of which has different signs, symptoms, treatments, and outcomes, depending on the type of cell involved and how fast the cells grow.
Cancer in children is a rarity, but can happen. In most cases, doctors are clueless as to why kids get cancer. The things that lead to cancer in children are not usually the same in adults. In India, approximately 15,000 children suffer from childhood cancer every year. Unfortunately, only 20 percent of these children get the required treatment needed to lead a better quality of life. The most common childhood cancers are:
- Acute lymphoblastic leukemia: It is a cancer of the blood and bone marrow and most common type in children. In this type of cancer, too many stem cells produced by the bone marrow turn into immature white blood cells (lymphoblasts) that don't mature into the normal blood cells (lymphocytes) that fight infection by attacking germs and other harmful bacteria.
- Central nervous system (CNS) tumors: These are cancers of the brain and brainstem. They are the most common solid tumors of childhood and have the highest mortality rate of the childhood cancers.
- Ewing sarcoma: It is an uncommon form of bone tumor, affecting mostly children ages 5 and older. These tumors develop in the cavity of the bone.
- Hodgkin lymphoma: It is a cancer of the lymph nodes. It is common in younger children and teens. Hodgkin lymphoma can start almost anywhere in the lymph nodes and then spread to almost any organ or tissue, including the liver, bone marrow and spleen.
- Myeloid leukemias: They are more rare and difficult to cure. In leukemia, the bone marrow produces large numbers of abnormal blood cells, which get into the blood stream and lymph system and may affect vital organs. The most common cancer of the myeloid cells is acute myeloid leukemia.
- Neuroblastoma: It is cancer of the sympathetic nervous system, a connection between the brain and other parts of the body. The cancer can grow n the abdomen, neck or pelvis. It is commonly seen in infants, and can form before birth.
- Non-Hodgkin lymphoma: It is the cancer affecting the immune system. The bone marrow produces the cells of the immune system and they travel to all the lymph glands, the thymus gland, areas of the intestinal tract, tonsils and spleen, so a lymphoma can develop in any of those sites.
- Osteogenic sarcoma (osteosarcoma): It is the most frequently diagnosed type of bone tumor, usually found in adolescents and young adults. Tumors are common in the large bones of the upper arm and the leg.
- Retinoblastoma: It is a cancer of the retinoblasts, or "baby" cells in the retina, responsible for vision. Retinoblastoma mostly occurs in children from birth to age 3.
- Rhabdomyosarcoma: Rhabdomyosarcoma is a tumor that arises in the muscle cells, and is the most common type in children under age 10. It is referred to as soft tissue sarcomas which can be found anywhere in the body.
- Wilms tumor: It is responsible for most cases of kidney tumors in children. About 95% of children with this tumor have a better cure rate with less treatment.
Symptoms of childhood cancers
Meet your pediatrician and evaluate your child’s health when you notice:
- Your child is sick for no apparent reason for more than two weeks
- A lump on any part of the body
- Your child’s eyes show a whiteness in the pupil area
- Your child gets tired very fast
- Recurrent high fever
- Unexplained weight loss
Treatment for childhood cancers
Even though childhood cancers are different from the adult ones, the treatment more or less remains the same. Some of the options are:
- Chemotherapy: Your child would receive anti-cancer drugs to destroy the cancer cells either intravenously, through the veins or intrathecally where drugs are introduced through the spine. Sometimes the drugs are even given orally to children. When the medications are administered, they attack the cancer cells and sometimes healthy cells too, leading to side effects like hair loss and scalp sensitivity, gastrointestinal problem, anemia, blood clotting, urinary tract infection, discomfort and pain etc.
- Radiation: In radiation therapy, high energy x-rays are used to target the specific tumors and kill or shrink its size. It might be given before chemotherapy or after a surgery. Radiation doesn’t kill all the healthy cells in the body but does affect those in the area where the rays reach.
- Surgery: It’s extremely difficult and demoralizing, but to keep your child off the clutches of cancer sometimes going under the knife becomes inevitable.
The treatment of most childhood cancers lasts for about six months, but in some cases it may continue for up to 3 years. Post treatment, a child can live a normal life. However, during the treatment multiple precautions are necessary covering hygiene, diet and certain lifestyle changes