Timely cancer diagnosis

Pediatric cancer is almost entirely cureable if diagnosed early, says Dr Shripad D Banavali, HOD Pediatric Oncology, Tata Memorial Hospital

As difficult and taboo as the disease may be, especially for harrowed parents, pediatric cancer is as curable as it is threatening. Not only is it surprisingly common in a population as large as ours - where even a figure as small as five percent can rake up sizable numbers - it also comes with startling facts that can go a long way in its prevention and subsequent cure.

Cancers that effect children under the age of 18 are known for their aggressiveness. Most susceptible are children under the age of 10. Its has characteristics and mannerisms differ from that in adults, making it curable if identified on time, but equally deadly if misdiagnosed. With caution and timely action, thousands of children are have gone on to lead perfectly normal lives.

The head of department of medical and pediatric oncology at the Tata Memorial Hospital, Dr Shripad D Banavali discusses key identifying factors and preventive mechanisms that can successfully help deter the disease.

What causes it?
Unlike adult cancers, which are usually a result of lifestyle-related habits such as tobacco and alcohol consumption and obesity, in children its caused by:

- While only one percent have hereditary cancers, 30 per cent of cancers in children are blood-related. Acute lymphoblastic leukemia develops in children mostly between five to seven years of age.

- The primary cause, a surprise, for this has now been identified as low exposure to infection. Children who are isolated from infancy and not exposed to other children (common carriers of infections and germs) as they start to grow up, have poorly developed immune systems. They are most susceptible to a cancerous growth since their body doesn't have the required immunity to curb uncontrolled cell multiplication.

- Mothers who consumed less amounts of vitamin B complex, folic acid and other essential vitamins during pregnancy also hamper their child's immune system.

Catch and cure
Cancer in children attacks very aggressively followed by rapid deterioration of their condition. The window of opportunity to contain it, in the case of leukemia is about 15 days, and in other tumors, even lesser.

Unfortunately, in most cases, by the time the common cold-like symptoms are diagnosed, the cancer turnsincurable. This is often too late for corrective medicine. In children, over 70 percent of first-time cases are curable if diagnosed and treated correctly and immediately. Cancer medication these days is categorised not only by its broad type, but can be further differentiated into sub-tumors with very specific medication.

Lookout for signs
While it is very difficult to isolate a set of symptoms since they are often generic, if a combination of symptoms present themselves ensure that a thorough blood analysis is done immediately. A few combinations to look out for:

- Consistent fever that lasts for days. It may subside temporarily but if fever continues for over a week, it needs further analysis.

- Body ache in combination with fever. Over time, the body ache might get more localised and lead to temporary immobility of a limb.

- Any lump or bump in the body, that is not a result of an accident, and is accompanied by consistent fever and body ache should be examined.

Treat it right
Aggressive cancers need harsh treatments. While for adults, a chemotherapy treatment is carried approximately every three weeks, in children it is done every day or every other day. The initial dose of medica tion requires intensive care and monitoring for the first six to seven months. Post this, they are put onto long-term medication and therapy that can be administered at home. The strong medication results in a few physical changes that the child and parents should be ready for.

- Hair loss is a common side effect of chemotherapy and often hard for children accept.

- With a drop in immunity, they become prone to infection. A two-ply face mask keeps spores and other airborne germs at bay. Acute nausea and a loss of appetite and weight are also common.

- Supportive care for children and parents through counseling and group therapies are essential. Even though children may be cured, the memories of the disease last them a life time. Parents need counseling to keep their morale high.

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