01 Sep Save a child’s life, diagnose today
In South Africa, every year, between 800-1000 children are diagnosed with cancer. Many more children are never diagnosed, two thirds of children never see a specialist or receive specialist treatment, and many children are incorrectly diagnosed. Many of these children present at the doctor in the late stages of cancer and have a low survival rate. The most heart-breaking fact of all? Most can be fully cured if their cancer is found when it first starts to make itself known.
“In South Africa many of childhood cancers end up presenting at a very late stage and yet these are very treatable if caught early,” says Dr Garth Davids, oncologist at Cancercare’s Rondebosch practice. “It is important that parents realise that the high mortality rate doesn’t hold true for childhood cancer. In well-resourced countries the cure rate is as high as 70- 80% as treatments have advanced significantly. The biggest problem is late presentation and accessing the appropriate level of care.”
There are warning signs that parents can look out for, signs that could help them save their child’s life. The best way to remember the signs and symptoms that should make you pause and pay attention is to use the acronym ST. SILUAN. This stands for: S – seek medical help for ongoing symptoms, I – watch out for eye changes like a squint or bulge, L – lumps in the stomach, pelvis or head, U – Unexplained fever, weight loss or tiredness, A – aching bones and back, N – neurological signs like an impaired walk or development. You may notice your child’s walk has changed or they’re not developing at the right speed. Look out for headaches with vomiting – persistent headaches should always be assessed and followed up.
The problem is that many of these signs can be mixed up with illnesses like the common cold or flu or tiredness or generally being run down. Symptoms like ongoing fatigue, persistent unexplained fever, easy bruising or bleeding, aching bones, easy fractures, and lumps all point to something more serious than just a simple illness.
“If you have taken your child for an assessment and your concerns and questions have not been addressed, do not hesitate to see out a second opinion. A parent always knows,” says Dr Davids. “I also recommend that parents always listen to their gut feeling.”
Unfortunately, there is a lack of awareness at the primary healthcare level that may see many parents’ concerns ignored in favour of more common diagnoses. It isn’t just parents who need to become more informed about the signs of childhood cancer, it’s the medical community too. In the more rural areas, getting the right help is even more difficult and there is the risk of being falsely reassured.
“Persistence is key, especially if you have an ongoing concern about your child’s health,” concludes Dr Davids. “See your primary healthcare practitioner, but do not hesitate to seek out further opinions if your concerns are not addressed.”
From parents in rural communities to those in cities, the first and most important step is to pay attention to the warning signs and take action. Perseverance and commitment will make all the difference in your child’s life, and could possibly make them one of the happy 80% who walk away from the illness with a healthy life ahead of them.