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Understanding childhood cancers

October is breast cancer awareness month. However, it is also important to know that there are a lot of other cancers and that cancer also affects young children. If you notice anything unusual on your or your child’s body, seek medical attention. Early detection saves lives.

What is cancer?

The organs and tissues of the body are made up of tiny building blocks called cells. Cancer is a disease of these cells. Normally cells grow in an orderly and controlled fashion. Cancer begins when a particular cell or group of cells in the body begin to multiply and grow without control.

Oncology is the study of these cells. The cancerous cells stop working properly and as their numbers increase, they form a lump or tumour. Eventually, the normal cells will be crowded out and the cancerous cells, if not treated, will take over. When cancer cells break away and spread to other parts of the body they may produce secondary tumours known as metastases. Depending on the type of cancer, these cells can spread to the lungs, liver, bones, bone marrow and very rarely the brain.

Sometimes the cancer will affect the blood cells, causing Leukaemia; other cancerous cells form tumours. When these tumours form in bone or muscles, they are known as sarcomas. Cancers that affect the lymphoid organs such as the lymph nodes, spleen and thymus are known as lymphomas. Carcinomas are rare in children. Most tumours in children are malignant or “cancerous”. Very rarely benign or “non-cancerous” tumours occur in children.  However, these may cause harm by pressing on the tissues and organs next to them.

Childhood cancers are quite different from cancers affecting adults. They tend to occur in the organs of the body, look different under the microscope and respond differently to treatment (more favorably). Cure rates for most childhood cancers are much higher than those for most adult cancers.

To improve the survival rate, more children need to be diagnosed at early stages of the disease and treated by a Paediatric Oncologist in a specialized Paediatric Oncology Unit.

Types of cancers

Wilms Tumour: Cancer of the kidney.

Leukemia: Cancer of the blood

Retinoblastoma: Cancer of the eye.

Bone cancer: Cancer of the bone.

Brain Tumour: Cancer of the brain.

Lymphomas-swelling of the lymph node in the neck, armpits or groin

What causes cancer?

No one knows what causes childhood cancer, although there are many different theories. A huge amount of research is being carried out worldwide, with studies into a number of possible causes. Childhood cancer is not  caused by diet or lifestyle choices.

Cancer is not contagious or infectious. Your child cannot catch cancer from anybody, nor can anyone else catch cancer from your child.

For most cancers, there is no evidence that they are inherited. It is exceptionally rare for a second child in a family to develop cancer unless the family has a known cancer syndrome.

It is essential to get tested for HIV and know your status and that of your family members. If one is found to be HIV positive, they will immediately be started on treatment to keep the immune system healthy. A healthy immune system will enable the body to fight or resist infections.

The National AIDS Council (NAC) will be hosting a fundraising golf tournament on October  22 in Harare to raise funds towards the treatment of children’s cancers. Individuals and corporates are welcome to donate towards this noble cause.

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