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Childhood cancer: what every parent must know

Half of South Africa’s childhood cancer sufferers go undiagnosed – but early diagnosis can make all the difference. These are the signs to look out for. 

26 September 2017
2 minute read

Little girl blowing on dandelion flower

“Your child has cancer.” This is a diagnosis no family wants to confront. Fortunately, childhood cancer is relatively rare. In South Africa, between 800 and 1 000 children are diagnosed with cancer annually. And if detected early, most children can be treated successfully, says Cancer Association of South Africa (CANSA). In the developed world, the survival rate for some cancers is as high as 90%, but delayed diagnosis significantly reduces survival rates.

If detected early, most children can be treated successfully.

Unfortunately, it is estimated that fewer than half of children with cancer in South Africa are diagnosed at all because people are unaware what their symptoms might mean. For this reason, says Childhood Cancer Association of South Africa (CHOC), public awareness of the symptoms of childhood cancer is vital.

Symptoms of childhood cancer The red flags to look out for are named after St Silouan, a Russian monk who prayed and wept for humanity.

There is one symptom for each letter of his name, as follows:

  • SEEK: Medical help for early, persistent symptoms.
  • (I) EYE: White spots in the eye, new squint, blindness, bulging eyeball.
  • LUMP: In the abdomen, pelvis, head, neck, limbs, testes, glands.
  • UNEXPLAINED: Fever, loss of appetite and weight, pallor, fatigue, easy bruising or bleeding.
  • ACHING: Bones or back, and easy fractures.
  • NEUROLOGICAL: Change in behaviour, gait or milestones, headaches, enlargement of head.

If your child appears to have any of these symptoms, immediately speak to your GP or paediatrician, or you can contact a CHOC regional office for a referral to your nearest treatment centre.

How childhood cancer is treated While your first port of call with suspicions of childhood cancer will either be your GP or paediatrician, or a CHOC centre, you will be referred for treatment by a specialist paediatric oncologist. Depending on the type of cancer, the treatment will then involve chemotherapy, surgery or radiation, or a combination of these treatments.

CHOC says: “We are fortunate that in South Africa there are some very good paediatric oncology units attached to academic teaching hospitals and there are also practicing paediatric oncologists in some private hospitals. The specialist treatment centres use well-established international protocols.”

Remember, the good news is that with some exceptions, childhood cancers respond better to treatments like chemotherapy, and children’s bodies tend to cope better than adults’ bodies with the treatments. Unfortunately, in some cases, chemotherapy and radiation therapy can cause long-term side effects, so children who have had cancer will require careful follow-up consultations throughout their lives.

The most common types of childhood cancer CHOC says that according to the most recent South African Children’s Cancer Study Group (SACCSG) registry statistics, for 2009 to 2013, the five most common childhood cancers in this country were:

  • Leukaemia (cancer of the bone marrow and blood)
  • Lymphoma (tumours that begin in the lymph glands)
  • Brain tumours
  • Nephroblastomas or Wilms tumours (cancer of the kidneys)
  • Soft-tissue sarcomas (tumours beginning in the connective tissue)

Childhood cancer is a reality that no-one wants to face, but your best defence against the worst outcomes is to educate yourself about what to look out for, and get treatment as soon as possible.

Get help

  • Find a public or private hospital with a Pediatric Oncology Unit here:
  • Call CHOC’s toll-free helpline on 0800 333 555 (hosted at the Chris Hani Baragwanath Academic Hospital)
  • SMS the name of your province to 34486 at a cost of R2 to have a CHOC representative contact you

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