In this era of extensively advanced medical technology, it is sad that children become sick and die in both developing and developed countries due to cancer. In adults, infections and lifestyle factors like eating junk food, alcohol and tobacco use, and obesity are implicated in causing different types of cancers. These take a long time to evolve. But presence of cancers in children is a cause for worry. In the industrialized world, cancer is said to be the 4th most common cause of death in children up to 14 years of age.
Blood cancers like leukemia are most common in children and account for about 30 per cent cancers. Second most common being cancers of brain and spinal cord. Wilm’s tumor of kidneys, retinoblastoma affecting eyes are some other cancers occurring in children.
Children, particularly young ones, are not able to state their problems or any discomfort. Mostly the cancer may be detected late when time for active treatment would not be available. Older people should be aware of cancers in children. People should be educated about the fact that even children can have a cancer.
Because general perception is that cancer is a sickness of elderly. Poor feeding in a child, unexplained weight loss, fever or night sweats with no infection detected clinically or by tests, should alert one to do tests for a cancer in the child. One or more swelling appearing in any part of the body, sudden onset of bleeding from any site, unexplained headache, dizziness, vomiting without nausea, are some other pointers to presence of cancer in body.
Viral infections are known to cause cancers in adults as well as children. Human immune deficiency virus, human papilloma virus and epstein barr virus, among others, are known to cause various lymphomas and leukemias in children. The child may even acquire infection from his mother during pregnancy. As such bacterial infections are not commonly implicated in causing cancers, but recent studies have shown heliobacter pylori a bacterial infection to be linked in causing gastric cancers.
Exposure to radiation, strong sunlight are some other risk factors which can cause cancers in children. More than 100,000 chemicals are being used today in various forms. They are used in pesticides, in body care products even for babies, in fast ready-to-eat foods and in sodas and processed juices. Many of these chemicals are now being known to cause various type of cancers. Children like eating these foods and fond parents also give them readily. Exposure to passive smoking both while in womb or as a child increases risk of cancer in the child.
Development of cancer depends on amount of carcinogen(cancer producing chemical), duration of exposure and ability of body to stop multiplication of cancer cells. Lack of adequate amount of proteins in the diet reduce body;s immunity, increasing susceptibility to viral infections and cancers as well. Children of affluent families are more involved in sedentary activities in their leisure time like being with computers and smart phones, instead of playing outdoor games. This sedentary lifestyle tends to diminish immunity, making them susceptible to cancers as well, along with infections.
Genetic mutations are also responsible for causing cancers. A child may have a mutation or acquire genetic mutation from either one of the parent. This factor cannot be altered. But other risk factors can be taken care of to prevent cancers in children. Parents should encourage children to take freshly prepared meals containing all necessary nutrients. It should include fresh legumes, fruits, healthy meat and milk products and whole grains. They should also be discouraged from having ready to eat fast foods, processed foods and sodas particularly in excess. Fresh fruit juices should be substituted for sodas. A couple planning to have a baby need to quit smoking.
Risk of cancer can be minimised in a child with preventive measures.
Dr Rachna Pande, specialist internal medicine – Butaro Hospital