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Every year, the 15th of February is celebrated as international childhood cancer day to raise awareness about childhood cancers and express support to the children suffering from this disease, the survivors, and their families. Though cancer in children is rare and it accounts for a small percentage (4-5%) of all cancers, the incidence of childhood cancer is on the rise. TheHealthSite.com spoke to Dr. Nandini C Hazarika MD, Paediatric Oncologist & Bone Marrow Transplant specialist at Madhukar Rainbow Children's Hospital, New Delhi, to understand more about childhood cancer and the various risk factors associated with it.
As per the data, every year more than 4,00,000 children and adolescents below 20 years are diagnosed with cancer all over the world. Fortunately, a lot of progress has been made in childhood cancer awareness and early diagnosis in recent decades. With better diagnostic tools and newer treatment modalities, more and more children with cancer are becoming long-term survivors and leading normal life. Almost more than 80% of children with cancer can get cured if they are diagnosed on time and receive appropriate treatment. But many children still succumb to this disease due to multiple factors like lack of awareness, delayed diagnosis, lack of access to appropriate cancer care, and treatment abandonment due to social or financial issues. For us, it's time to spread awareness about this curable disease in children.
Cancers in children are different from adult cancers. Childhood cancer grows faster than adult cancer, hence they respond well to treatment and they have a better cure rate than adult cancers. Blood cancer (Leukemia) is one of the most common types of cancer in children. Out of all childhood blood cancers, Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL) is the most common type with an excellent outcome. Other common cancers in children are lymphoma, brain tumors, bone tumors, tumors of the kidney (Wilm's tumor), adrenal gland (Neuroblastoma), soft tissue sarcomas, tumors involving the eyes (Retinoblastoma), liver (Hepatoblastoma), etc.
Symptoms usually depend on the type of cancer. These symptoms can occur in other diseases also, but we need to be careful if these kinds of symptoms are persisting, we must consult a doctor.
The factors or the causes of this childhood cancer are what every parent wants to know. Though the exact cause is not known, it's mostly the changes in the genes (called genetic mutation) which is responsible for the development of cancer in children. There could be several risk factors that can be associated with this cancer in kids. Some of the causes can be --- environmental pollution, exposure to chemicals, radiation, viral infections, obesity, lifestyle changes, etc. However, in most cases, these gene mutations can happen randomly to anyone without any external factors.
Viral infections are very common in children and they are more vulnerable to infections due to immature immune systems but these infections also help the immune system to mature. Sometimes these infections, especially in a well-protected child, can lead to an abnormal immune response to such viral infection leading to genetic mutations. As cancer is a multifactorial disease it is difficult to determine the critical period of exposure whether during pregnancy, before pregnancy, or during childhood. Some known viruses which are associated with cancer development are Epstein Barr Virus (EBV) Cytomegalovirus (CMV), Human Herpes virus 6 (HHV 6), HIV, Human papilloma virus (HPV), BK virus, hepatitis B and Hepatitis C virus. Early treatment and vaccination can limit the transmission of these viruses from the mother to the child. The three most cancers in children are Leukaemia (blood cancer), Lymphoma, and Brain tumor. Viral infection has been found to be a major risk factor in the development of these three common childhood cancers. EBV and HHV6 infections are known to be associated with the development of childhood leukaemia and lymphoma whereas CMV and BK viruses are found to be associated with some childhood brain tumours.
Typically, factors that trigger cancer in children usually differ from those that cause cancer in adults, such as smoking, alcohol, or exposure to environmental toxins. In most cases, it is because of some changes in the genes which can happen randomly and without any external factors. There is no effective way to prevent most of them. Therefore, early detection is more important and fortunately, most childhood cancers are curable.
However, it is always advisable to follow a healthy balanced diet, have regular physical activities, and stay away from junk foods, obesity, and constipation. It is a fact that obesity in childhood can lead to an increased risk of cancer in adulthood. It can never be an overage to mention that nutrition plays an important role in cancer prevention and treatment.
Awareness, early diagnosis, and better access to care are the way forward for a better outcome.