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Childhood Cancer: Early signs of cancer in kids that every parent should know

Health experts reveal all about childhood cancer, its signs and symptoms for early recognition and what a parent should know

Childhood Cancer awareness is an important step to remind parents that even though many childhood illnesses are caused by viruses and other common problems, it is also possible for children to develop cancer hence, it is important to be aware of the symptoms that could be a sign of cancer in your kid such as frequent infections, serious viral infections, weight loss or poor appetite, headaches or unexplained fever that won’t go away. These conditions can easily be mistaken for other illnesses but health experts insist that if they persist, it is necessary to seek medical advice from a pediatric oncologist as soon as possible.

Experts highlight that a majority of childhood cancers are “curable” if diagnosed early and treated appropriately but childhood cancer diagnosis is often a challenge to the general physicians as well as paediatricians as the signs and symptoms often resemble common childhood illness hence, there is often a delay of 6-8 weeks from first symptom onset to diagnosis in most children. This is largely due to lack of awareness and misattribution of symptoms by the family and general physicians and it is often seen that the family would have had an average of 3-4 medical consultations prior to reaching the Pediatric Oncologist (child cancer specialist).

In an interview with HT Lifestyle, Dr S Jayanthi, Senior Paediatric Oncologist at Kamineni Hospitals in Hyderabad, shared, “It is important for parents to be aware of some common signs and symptoms that could indicate their child has cancer. These can include persistent fatigue, headaches, pain or swelling in joints or limbs, fever or night sweats, swollen lymph nodes in neck or armpits and easy bruising or bleeding. If any of these symptoms persist it is important to seek medical advice from a pediatric oncologist as soon as possible.”

She revealed that the most common cancer types are leukemias, lymphomas, malignant epithelial neoplasms, spinal cord tumors and kidney tumors and said, “The top cancers found in children are leukemias and brain/spinal tumours such as Ewing Sarcoma. Newer types of cancer that have been recently identified in children include leukemia and lymphoma. Parents should be aware of any changes in their child’s health such as unusual lumps or bumps on the body, persistent headaches or vomiting, weight loss or fatigue. Early detection is key to treating these childhood cancers so it is important for parents to remain vigilant about these signs and symptoms.”

Dr S Jayanthi added, “Blood cancers such as leukemias require trained primary health care providers and bone marrow tests for diagnosis. Red blood cells are also important indicators which doctors use to diagnose certain types of childhood cancer. It is important for parents and caregivers to be aware of the signs of childhood cancer so that they can seek medical advice quickly if they have any concerns. Early detection improves treatment outcomes and helps save lives. As soon as a parent or caregiver notices any abnormal symptoms in their child, they should consult with their pediatrician who may refer them to a pediatric oncologist if necessary.”

She warned parents to be aware of any changes in their children's eyes, especially a white glow and said, “Every year, thousands of young children across world are diagnosed with eye cancer, called retinoblastoma. This disease is the most common type of eye cancer and can affect both eyes at once. Symptoms include eye changes such as a white glow that can be seen when light is shined into the pupil or shadows appearing within the pupil. Parents and caregivers should also look out for vision problems or redness, swelling, and pain in either one or both eyes.”

To avoid delayed suspicion and unnecessary delay in diagnosis, Dr Vinay Munikoty Venkatesh, Consultant - Paediatric Haematology Oncology and BMT at Manipal Hospitals in Yeshwanthpur, said it is very important to recognise the following signs and symptoms which could give early clues to suspect childhood cancers:

1. Unexplained fever persisting for > 2weeks and not responding to usual lines of treatment

2. Unexplained paleness and excessive tiredness may suggest reduced hemoglobin (red blood cells)

3. Easy bruising or bleeding tendency may suggest reduced platelet production. Eg: bruises over skin, bleeding from nose and gums

4. An unusual lump or swelling anywhere in the body. Eg: swellings in the neck, something hard felt in the tummy

5. Complains of leg pains and limping (not due to trauma)

6. Early morning headache often associated with recurrent vomiting

7. Sudden eye or vision changes like appearance of white opacity when you flash a torchlight into eyes

He said, “In case of any of the above symptoms, it is advisable to meet your pediatrician and get checked. The pediatrician should be the first point of contact to evaluate any suspicious symptoms and then refer to a specialist. Simple diagnostic tests like complete blood count, ultrasound imaging or a CT scan would clinch the diagnosis.”

According to him, few of the myths and false beliefs that hinder appropriate treatment in childhood cancers are:

1. Childhood cancers are not curable! It has excellent cure rates if diagnosed early and treated appropriately. Cure rates is >85-90% in majority of cases

2. Childhood cancers are genetic! 95% cancers in children are not inherited. There is no need for family to be guilty of the same

3. Childhood cancers are contagious, meaning they can spread from person to person! No cancer is contagious

4. Treatment is painful! Treatment involves medication called chemotherapy which is delivered through a specialised device called chemoport. Hence it is not painful and can be delivered easily similar to any other injection

5. Children do not tolerate treatment! Children indeed tolerate treatment better. Unlike adults with comorbidities like diabetes, heart disease and hypertension, children do not have any such super added ailments. Hence, they often complete treatment timely and effectively.

6. Treatment is associated with long term side effects! The treatment is protocolised and protocols are made in a way to minimise the side effect. We also do screening from time to time to look for any side effects.

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