As cancer awareness continues to increase in Rwanda, it is time to dedicate special attention to the discipline of pediatric (childhood) cancers. While cancer knowledge in the general public is on the rise due to concerted efforts by the Ministry of Health and its partners, major gaps in how much Rwandans know about childhood cancers remains.
Each year, an estimated quarter million children worldwide develop cancer with around 200,000 living in middle and low-income countries. The survival rate for children diagnosed with cancer is appallingly low in the developing world, estimated to be less than 25% versus an 85% survival rate in the developed world.
The huge gap in survival rates is a consequence of many factors such as poor infrastructure and socio-economic constraints. However, there is a way to combat this reality and that is through awareness and early detection.
Compared to adults, most childhood cancers in Rwanda and elsewhere, when detected early, can bear very good outcomes and so it is important that we all understand the signs and symptoms of childhood cancers and what to do when a child is suspected of having cancer.
One of the biggest barriers to preventing the spread of cancer in children is based on the myth that only adults get cancer. The general public must realize that cancer can and does affect children. Based on this reality, children should be monitored in the home for any physical changes that could indicate cancer.
Parents and children should immediately take notice if any of the following symptoms arise: rapid growths or swelling, distention of the abdomen, pain in the bones/back/limbs, significant weight loss, night sweats, bleeding or vomiting especially in the morning, and headaches that become more severe over time.
These among others are all possible signs of childhood cancers and warrant an immediate visit to a Health Center or District Hospital where the child can be appropriately referred for appropriate diagnosis and treatment.
While it is of course emotional, stressful and a financial burden for families whose children have cancer, it’s also a responsibility of every Rwandan to support them and the best way is to help them get better outcomes when treated.
The most common cancers affecting children in this country are Wilm’s Tumor, Leukemia and Lymphomas and all can have very positive outcomes when recognised and treated early. This should be a motivation for parents, caregivers and children to be alert and aware anytime alarming symptoms develop.
Early detection means that the cancer can most likely be diagnosed and treated before it metastasizes (spreads) to other parts of the body.
Once there is suspicion of cancer, it is important that families seek professional help. Traditional healers and other non-medical caregivers are not trained to give the very specific care that is required by cancer patients.
Chemotherapy, radiotherapy, surgery and other very specialised procedures are required to manage the disease and so families should consult a nearby health center or district hospital that will transfer the child to a higher level facility in order to receive the best possible diagnosis and care.
Some studies have shown that one of the reasons cancer patients delay to get a proper diagnosis and management is the transfer process and here medical professionals are urged to immediately refer children with suspicion of any type of cancer.
In response to the increased prevalence of childhood cancer in this part of the world the government has invested money and infrastructure to this cause. One of the most significant initiatives implemented in an effort to prioritise childhood cancer has been the creation of a Cancer Center of Excellence at Butaro Hospital.
In partnership with Partners in Health, the Ministry of Health set up this facility so that children and adults who are suspected of cancer may receive the highest standard of care available.
In Rwanda we are blessed to have healthcare infrastructure and a Government dedicated to providing adequate health services for all. Given this it falls on each and every one of us to take advantage of the care available for our children. It is our responsibility as citizens of this country to invest in our future generations and now is the time to raise childhood cancer awareness for all who live in Rwanda.
The writer is a Founder & Director, Rwanda Children’s Cancer Relief and a Medical Doctor at Butaro Hospital.