Caring for Childhood Cancer

Cancer is a word that triggers many emotions in adults. Most people associate cancer with fear, due to the difficulty in treatment and high mortality rate. While this may be true for adults, the situation is very different for children with this condition, as childhood cancer is very treatable.

Paediatric cancer, better known as cancer that affects those under the age of 18, is not very common in Malaysia and the world. On average, paediatric oncologists in Malaysia and Singapore see just 700 new patients in a year.Not only is childhood cancer not as widespread as other cancers, the majority of children with the condition can be treated and will make a full recovery.

Dr Lin Hai Peng
Dr Lin Hai Peng

Treatable Leukaemia

In Malaysia, childhood cancer is mainly divided into leukaemia and solid tumours. Of those with paediatric cancer, 40% have leukaemia, out of which, the majority – nearly 75% – have acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL).

In a research involving Subang Jaya Medical Centre and University Malaya Medical Centre, the survival rates of patients with ALL is found to be over 90%, highlighting the treatability of this condition. These results, which have been published in international journals, are comparable to those in countries in the west such as the United Kingdom and United States.

The other major form of leukaemia, Acute Myeloid Leukaemia (AML) is more common in adults, but can also occur in children. The condition is easier to treat as a child, and although it does not boast a high rate of recovery, the condition is mostly curable.

Removable Solid Tumours

Tumours can also develop in children, and very often occur in the brain, with the most common being medulloblastoma. With modern pathology techniques, specialists can define the type of medulloblastoma a child has, and provide the appropriate treatment based on this diagnosis, allowing for accurate and effective treatment.

Other tumours, such as glioma, germ cell tumours and neuroblastoma are more difficult to treat, but are also much rarer. With early detection and intervention, these conditions can be properly managed, allowing the child to grow up healthily.

Prevention and Diagnosis

Because the causes and risk factors of childhood cancer is currently unknown, there is no way to prevent the disease. However, early detection of childhood cancer is much simpler than site-based adult cancer.

As a child’s body is smaller, tumoursare easier to spot. Abnormal growths and changes can usually be felt and seen by parents, allowing them to seek immediate medical treatment.

Leukaemia is similarly easy to detect, as the condition often destroysthe bone marrow, causing a child to become thin, pale and weak quickly, bleed easily and develop a high fever.These sudden changes are clear indicators that a parent should bring their child to see a doctor, allowing for quick diagnosis and detection of paediatric cancer.

Common Treatments

With very few exceptions, most childhood cancers are curable with multi-modal therapy, i.e., combinations of chemotherapy, surgery and radiotherapy. Chemotherapy has emerged as the dominant mode of treatment especially for leukaemia.

Unfortunately, when the word “chemo” is mentioned, most parents immediately say “NO!”. This is because there is a widespread misconception among adults that patients often die after chemotherapy. It is important to know that children can tolerate chemotherapy much better than adults. In fact, chemotherapy is the key to cure for them.

For childhood solid tumours, Radiotherapy (RT) is no longer commonly used. To control the localised disease, surgery is necessary for most types of solid tumours.

If a multimodal therapy cannot treat the problem, a Bone Marrow Transplant usually will. After treatment, these children will be observed for up to five years before they can be pronounced cured.

Growing up Healthy

In general, children who develop paediatric cancer are not at all worried about their condition, because they are too young to understand the disease. Parents on the other hand will naturally be worried for their children,but they need to understand that childhood cancer is not a death sentence.

There are many adults currently in society who once lived with childhood cancer, but thanks to treatment, grew up just like any other child.In fact, some of them may not even know they have had cancer in the past. So, if your child has cancer, don’t panic or worry – chances are, with the help of specialists, the condition can be overcome.                    

Key Messages:

  1. Most childhood cancers are curable
  2. In childhood cancer treatment, your first chance is your best chance