Losing a child to cancer is something we can seldom imagine as parents. But cancer can afflict even the young. Here we take you through what childhood cancer is and how it is treated.
What is juvenile or childhood cancer?
Juvenile cancer also known as childhood cancer or pediatric cancer is a cancer in children that occurs between birth and 15 years of age. Although childhood cancer is rare, it is a leading cause of death by disease under age 19 in the United States. Cancer in children can occur anywhere in the body. It begins with the change and rapid growth of abnormal white blood cells in the body. It then forms a mass called a tumor which can be cancerous or benign (does not spread). The cancerous tumor is malignant which grows and spread to other parts of the body.
Pediatric oncology is the department of medicine that takes care for the diagnosis and treatment of cancer in children.
What are the risk factors and causes of childhood cancer?
A risk factor can be anything that can increase the chance of getting childhood cancer. Most children with cancer are not affected by any risk factors and do not end-up developing cancer. To be sure, these risk factors are not very well understood and include, but are not limited to, the following:
- Certain medical conditions can increase a child’s risk of developing certain types of cancers and include: Genetic disorder Down syndrome and Genetic abnormalities
- Problems with development in the womb
- Environmental causes such as exposure to infectious or toxic substances
- Exposure to radiation or previous radiation or cancer treatment
What are the symptoms and signs of childhood cancers?
Cancer is difficult to detect in children. There can be certain changes in a child’s body which can signal a problem that may need medical care and attention. Children with cancer sometimes show symptoms which may be the cause of medical conditions other than cancer and hence the presence of the symptoms described below should not be interpreted as conclusive evidence of a cancer – such “false positive” errors are common and the parents of child with these symptoms should not jump to conclusions before a doctor examines the child.
Also, the lack of these symptoms does not necessarily mean that a child is free of cancer – some children who develop cancer can be initially asymptomatic. Hence children who have certain risk factors for developing cancer should be regularly screened for cancer before it manifests in actual symptoms. Some tell-tale symptoms of cancer in children include the following:
- Weight loss
- Increased swelling or persistent pain in bones, joints, back or legs
- Lump or mass in abdomen, neck chest, pelvis or armpits
- Sudden changes in the eyes or vision
Can a child get cancer due to DNA changes?
Cancer can be caused by changes in DNA that grows oncogenes (genes that help cells grow, divide or stay alive) and turn off tumor suppressor genes (which slow down cell division or kills cells at the right time). Children who inherit DNA changes (mutations) from a parent are at increase in risk of certain types of cancer. Most of the childhood cancers are not caused by inherited DNA changes but are the result of DNA changes that occur early in the child’s life, sometimes even before birth.
What are the common types of childhood cancer?
Childhood cancers are rare and tend to be more life-threatening than adult cancers. Most of the childhood cancers fall into a range of several specific cancer types and non-cancerous tumors. Listed below are the types of childhood cancers found under 15 years old:
Amongst all other cancers Leukemia is the most common type of childhood cancer.
What is Leukemia?
Leukemias, which are cancers of the body’s blood forming tissues including bone marrow and lymphatic system, are the most common cancers in children and teens accounting for almost 30% of all cancers in children. The most common childhood leukemias are acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL) and acute myelogenous leukemia (AML). Chronic leukemias are very rare in children. It starts in blood forming cells found in bone marrow.
Although leukemia is a cancer of white blood cells, some leukemias can also start in other types of blood cells. White blood cells are a vital part of our immune system which protects our body from invasion of bacteria, viruses, fungi, abnormal cells and any other foreign substances. In leukemia, the white blood cells are unable to perform their role of protecting the body against the disease because they are defective. The large number of abnormal white blood cells is produced in the bone marrow. They travel quickly through the bloodstream and crowd out healthy cells in the blood which raises the chances of infections and other problems.
What are the risk factors of childhood leukemia?
There are very few known risk factors which increase the risk of childhood leukemia and include the following:
- Genetic abnormalities
- Inherited syndromes such as Down syndrome or Li-Fraumeni syndrome
- Inherited immune system problems
- Siblings with leukemia
- Lifestyle or environmental risk factors
- Radiation exposure or exposure to chemotherapy
- Immune system suppression
What are the symptoms of childhood leukemia?
The leukemias can cause any of the following symptoms:
- Bone and joint pain,
- Fatigue, weakness, pale skin
- Bleeding or bruising,
- Fever, weight loss, and other symptoms.
How can leukemia be treated in children?
Chemotherapy is the main treatment for childhood leukemia and it uses toxic chemicals to destroy the cancer cells. Chemotherapy can be administered into the vein, spinal cord fluid or through the mouth and can cause side effects including hair loss, nausea and increased risk of infections as it also causes damage to healthy cells in the body. In some cases chemotherapy may be combined with stem cell transplant to allow the body to restore itself and regenerate healthy tissue that is damaged through chemotherapy.
Some other treatments may be used in special cases and include the following:
- Targeted therapy in which specific drugs are given that attack and kills cancer cells without hurting normal cells in a child
- Stem cell therapy which is the introduction of fresh and healthy stem cells into the body
- Radiation therapy which uses high energy rays to kills cancer cells
- Immunotherapy in which antibodies are used to fight against the cancer cells
- Blood transfusions may be used to replace red blood cells or platelets
Treatment is very intensive for acute forms of childhood leukemia which can be lymphocytic and myeloid. Alternative methods of treatment can be used along with the regular medical care such as vitamins, herbs, special diets and acupuncture in order to manage main and improve the body’s coping mechanisms.
Can leukemia be cured in children?
With the proper treatment most of the childhood leukemias have 90% remission rates which mean that there is no longer much evidence of cancer cells present in body. The survival rate is 5 years in children after the diagnosis of leukemia has increased over time and it is now in the range of 60 to 70%.
The majority of children with the disease, when treated properly, experience permanent remission which results in a lasting cure. In order to achieve the optimal outcome from cancer treatment and to improve the quality of life, it is vitally important that side effects resulting from cancer and its treatment are appropriately managed.