We all have dreams of the person we want to become and what we want to achieve in life. For some children, those dreams are interrupted and sometimes shattered, by a cancer diagnosis.
Childhood cancer is a subject that nobody really wants to think or talk about, but unfortunately it’s a reality that hundreds of families in Scotland have to face every year.
A cancer diagnosis is upsetting at any age, but especially so when the patient is a child, as Cumbernauld Community Health Information Hub and Cumbernauld Family Hub take time to recognise as this year’s Childhood Cancer Awareness Month draws to a close.
Whilst thankfully cancer in children is relatively rare, this does not deflect from the fact that parents of around 1,900 children in the UK will hear the awful words ‘your child has cancer’ this year. Tragically, almost one in six of those children won’t survive, and the disease is the biggest cause of death of children aged 0-14 in the country.
Every September, Childhood Cancer Awareness Month provides us with an opportunity to raise awareness amongst communities and supporters about what they can do to help these children fighting for their lives and to help prevent cancer.
The annual campaign helps to spotlight the impact of cancer on children, young people and their families. It offers a time to consider the shocking fact that on average, every day in the UK 12 children and young people receive the devastating news that they have cancer.
But in years to come, through raising awareness, generating funds, changing lifestyles, developing research, and the pulling together of all the help, resources and resilience that communities, health services, charities and local people can bring, we can change this picture.
If you or your family has been affected by childhood cancer, it’s natural to have many questions. Below, Cumbernauld Community Health Information Hub seeks to provide a starting point for understanding the basics of childhood cancer.
CHILDHOOD CANCER: SOME KEY QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS
What is Cancer?
We all hear the word ‘cancer’, but what really is it and what do we mean? Cancer is not a single disease with a single type of treatment. There are more than 200 different types of cancer, each with its own name and treatment.
The root of cancer is in the body’s cells. Cells are tiny building blocks that make up the body’s organs and tissues. Cells receive signals from the body, telling them when to grow and when to divide to make new cells. This is how our bodies grow and heal. These cells can become old, damaged or no longer needed. When this happens, the cell gets a signal from the body to stop working and die.
Sometimes these signals can go wrong, and the cell becomes abnormal. The abnormal cell may keep dividing to make more and more abnormal cells. These can form a lump, called a tumour.
Some types of cancer start from blood cells. Abnormal cells can build up in the blood, and sometimes the bone marrow. This is where blood cells are made. These types of cancer are sometimes called blood cancers.
What Types of Cancer Affect Children?
Cancer in young people accounts for less than 1% of all new cancer cases. Cancer statistics for adults are generally classified according to the site of the tumour in the body, such as lung, bowel or breast. In children and young people, however, cancers are more appropriately classified using a system that also takes into account the type of cell and tissue from which the cancer originates.
The types of cancer affecting children are quite different from the cancers that affect teenagers and young adults, and the cancers that typically affect adults aged 25 and over are generally different once again.
There are 76 types of children’s cancer that can be put in 12 main groups. The most common are leukaemia (30%), brain, central nervous system and intracranial tumours (20%) and lymphomas (11%).
What Causes Cancer in Children?
Despite a wealth of research, much uncertainty remains over what causes cancer in children. Many different factors have been linked with the development of childhood cancer, with varying degrees of certainty. These include genetics, environment, radiation, infections and chemical exposure.
Research is complicated by the fact that there are a number of elements which may cause cancer in children. Exposure to more than one of these factors is probably necessary, and probably at different stages of a child’s life.
What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Childhood Cancer?
Symptoms of cancer in children can be wide-ranging, and can include an unusual lump or swelling, unexplained paleness, loss of energy, easy bruising or bleeding, an ongoing pain in one area of the body, limping, unexplained fever or illness that doesn’t go away, frequent headaches, vomiting and sudden eye or vision changes.
In most cases, these symptoms are caused by something other than cancer. But it’s important not to ignore these symptoms, particularly if they persist and are causing problems for your child. Knowing how your child’s body normally looks and feels can help you be aware of any changes that could be caused by cancer.
What Should a Parent Do if They Recognise Any Signs or Symptoms in Their Child?
If your child has any symptoms that are ongoing, unexplained or unusual for them it’s important to see your GP. There are certain symptoms in children that should always be checked. Don’t be scared about taking your child to be checked by your GP. The earlier cancer is found, the more likely it is to be cured.
Make an appointment with your GP as soon as possible if you have any concerns in relation to the previously highlighted signs or symptoms. Remember, the sooner your child gets checked out the better things will be, either in terms of putting your mind at rest or getting the right treatment.
If your child has already been to the GP with symptoms but they haven’t gone away, it is important to see them again. If the GP has any concerns that the child’s symptoms might be caused by cancer, they will advise on the next steps in terms of tests, diagnosis and treatment.
What is the Outlook and What Are the Treatment Options?
In the UK, 91% of children survive cancer for one year and 82% survive for more than five years. Remember that more children and families are beating cancer every single year. There are some amazing recovery stories on which hope for the future can be drawn.
In the early 1960s, three quarters of children diagnosed with cancer died. Today, more than three quarters of children survive. However, this high overall survival rate masks wide variation between different types of cancer.
There are many types of cancer treatment. The types of treatment that a child with cancer receives will depend on the type of cancer and how advanced it is. Common treatments include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, immunotherapy and stem cell transplant.
What Can a Parent Do to Reduce the Risk of Cancer in Their Child?
By supporting your children to eat clean, whole and real foods, eliminate sugars, and drink more water, you can reduce their risk of cancer. It is known that at least 35% of cancers are related to what you eat. It is generally accepted that a healthy diet with plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables can protect against cancer in all age groups.
One study has demonstrated a strong protective effect against childhood leukaemia risk if oranges and bananas were consumed on a regular basis during the first two years of life. There is also a fairly substantial body of evidence pointing towards a small protective effect of breastfeeding on childhood leukaemia risk.
The risk of childhood cancer within Greater Cumbernauld is higher than average given that one in five adults in Lanarkshire currently smoke and 21.8% of children aged 4-5 living in the area are classed as obese. Maintaining a healthy weight and engaging in physical activity can lower a child’s risk of various types of cancer.
There are many worthwhile charities committed to the fight against childhood cancer, including Young Lives vs Cancer, Children with Cancer UK, Teenager Cancer Trust, Cancer Research UK and Macmillan Cancer Support, amongst others. Further information and support for families affected can be obtained by clicking on the highlighted links.
If you would like some free informal advice in relation to childhood cancer, Cancer Awareness Roadshows are taking place during October and November across Cumbernauld town centre.
These invite members of the public to drop at any time to speak confidentially with an expert cancer nurse from Cancer Research UK. For full details of dates, times and venues, contact Cornerstone House Centre on 01236 739220 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.