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According to Cancer Research UK, there were around 1,700 cases of paediatric cancer between 2011 and 2013. It is a difficult concept to get to grips with, but despite various campaigns to raise awareness about cancer and its effects on children, many of us are not aware of the risk factors or of what we can do to help.
Our bodies are made up of billions of cells. When a cell is damaged or dies, the body automatically generates more cells in order to replace the ones which are missing – this is called cell turnover.
Sometimes a cell will develop attributes that cause it to function differently. This is called mutation. Normally the body will discard mutated cells because they are not able to perform their function correctly. Cancer occurs when the body begins to rapidly reproduce mutated, unhealthy cells – or “rogue cells” instead of healthy ones. These cells can take root anywhere in the body, causing tumours.
Not all tumours are cancerous. Non-cancerous tumours are referred to as “benign”, and although they can cause health problems, are not considered to be as life threatening as “malignant” or cancerous tumours.
The cells which can cause benign tumours do not spread across the body, this is why they are considered to be less dangerous than malignant tumours, which do. When cancerous cells travel through the body and attach themselves to another area this is referred to as having “secondaries”. Most cancer treatments aim to prevent the spread of secondaries by inhibiting the reproduction of the unhealthy cells. However, this is very difficult to do without it causing harm to the rest of the body, and can have side effects which also make the sufferer ill – such as with chemotherapy.
The effects of cancer can range hugely from person to person, and depend on several factors including: age, lifestyle, overall health and if they have a hereditary form of the disease.
An aggressive form of cancer occurs when the cancerous cells reproduce and spread at a rapid rate, this can occur in anyone affected by cancer. However, cancers tend to be more aggressive in children because they are still growing, and have a naturally higher cell turnover than adults.
Some common forms of paediatric cancer are:
• Brain cancer
• Kidney cancer
• Eye cancer
Cancer in children can be notoriously difficult to diagnose. This is for two reasons, the first is that cancer in children is still very rare – most GPs will only come across a single case of paediatric cancer in their career. The second, is that many of the early symptoms of cancer mimic common childhood maladies such as colds or a tummy ache.
According to Cancer Research UK the most common symptoms are:
• feelings of fatigue
• repeated viral or bacterial infections
• bone and joint pain
• abdominal pain which may cause loss of appetite and weight loss
• swollen lymph nodes under the arms, in the groin, chest and neck.
• easy bleeding or bruising
• unexplained rashes
• seizures or changes in behaviour
• persistent headaches
The treatments for paediatric cancer vary greatly depending on the type of cancer, how advanced it is and the age of the child. The three primary treatments are: surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy.
Children often respond very well to chemotherapy, and tend to have a faster recovery time than adults. This is primarily because chemo is most effective against aggressive forms of cancer. Conversely, radiation therapy has more negative side effects in children than adults, and can cause more long term damage.
Recent studies and clinical trials have also found immunotherapy and targeted treatment drugs can be extremely effective on certain kinds of cancers. However, more research on these methods is needed.
Cancer is a life-changing experience for anyone who is affected by it, and it can be difficult for the adults in a paediatric cancer sufferer’s life to find ways to explain what is happening in a way that is positive but factual.
If you are a concerned parent or carer, please visit the Paediatric Oncology Resource Center. It is an online source which was founded by the parents of children with cancer. It provides useful information and detailed descriptions of the symptoms experienced by children who have been affected by different forms of cancer, from the perspective of a parent.
It is important that everyone who is effected by cancer has someone that they can speak to for advice and support. For more information on this, please visit your GP to learn more about support groups in your area. You can also visit the Children with Cancer UK website, the largest UK charity dedicated to fighting paediatric cancer and supporting affected families.