X-Frame-Options: SAMEORIGIN
Childhood Cancer Awareness Month is Vital

Written By Joedene

September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. Recognised by childhood cancer organisations worldwide, it’s a valuable opportunity to acknowledge the crucial support that professionals provide to children with cancer, and their families. Cancer is one of the leading causes of death among children and adolescents worldwide; approximately 280,000 children ages 0-19 are diagnosed with cancer each year. 

Cancercare is the only private childhood cancer treatment centre in the Western Cape. Two of our specialists from the unit have taken some time to share their insights and learnings with us. Talking with both Dr Johann Riedemann and Sr Helen Laatz from our Cape Gate branch, it is easy to see that their combined expertise and experience help many people understand the depth and care involved within the profession of Child Oncology. 

Dr Johann Riedemann – Cancercare Oncologist

When asked what the typical pediatric cancers are that are seen in his Unit, Dr Riedemann replies.

“There are atrophic cancers, or blood cancers, as they’re more commonly known, including leukaemias and lymphomas. This is different to solid tumours, meaning there’s a mass in the brain or maybe the chest or whichever it might be. Brain tumours constitute about 30% of pediatric solid cancers.”

He continues,

“A lot of the Leukemia and lymphomas are quite curable but solid tumours are difficult to treat because they often require multi-disciplinary teams with surgeons, paediatricians, radiation oncologists, etc. Not forgetting the long-term consequences of a young child being exposed to toxic treatments and possibly surgery. Our unit offers a multi-disciplinary approach.”

Sister Laatz has worked for 10 years at Cancercare. Her start in oncology was almost by chance. She was told on her first day working for the Red Cross that they don’t usually ask this of new starters, but they desperately needed someone to cover oncology for just 2 months and would she mind? She gladly offered her service and 32 years later, she is still working in this field and she is passionate about what she does. 

She is constantly impressed by the children she meets.

“I think the beauty of Paediatric Oncology is that the kids are resilient. They are brutally honest. If you upset a child, they will let you know in no uncertain terms. But in the same breath, 2 minutes later, they’re hugging you and waving goodbye”

She says

“We see on average 6 to 8 kids a day, sometimes more. Our youngest was about four or five weeks old. Leukaemia is the most common diagnosis, especially amongst 3 to 6-year-olds.”

Dr Riedemann brings attention to the fact that there is a ‘grey area’ in a person’s life, at the age of 12 and above. As Dr Riedemann remarks,

“According to the South African Child Act, there are defined differences between a child above and below the age of 12. (Interestingly, at this age you are legally entitled to sign consent). So if the child is less than 12, they need to receive what is known as systemic treatment such as chemotherapy, which a pediatric oncologist normally manages”.

But those aged 12 and above are considered to be ‘mini adults’, belonging to a separate niche in oncology which requires analysis of more complex factors related to the patient. For example, consideration of the different side effects of treatment, personality, the phase of life and psychological stresses.

“We as a company have decided to focus on this special niche because there is no such thing in South Africa” Dr Riedemann says.  

Sister Laatz explains how she often sees first-hand the remarkable strength and fortitude of children. “We have had kids that will happily bring their violins in and play while they’re having chemo. She understands the value of encouragement and always remaining positive in the face of Cancer.

“One thing we often say to parents is ‘Don’t just look at the stats’, because at Cancercare we don’t just do stats, we do hope. There’s always hope, and there’s always a reason to put one foot in front of the other. Caring for children with Cancer goes far wider than the individual child. The bonds that you make not just with the kids, the mums, the dads, the siblings, it becomes an entire family set-up. Your average child with leukaemia gets active treatment for about 3 years. So you are very involved with the kids for the long term”.

Dr Riedemann agrees and emphasises the holistic approach that Cancercare offers.

“It’s a multi-factorial approach to the child and their family. For instance, when the family arrives, I often ask how the healthy brother or sister is coping, because there’s often so much focus on the sick child, that we forget about the other people in the family unit. Holistic means we have a ‘biopsychosocial’ approach. So biologically, psychologically, and socially and even spiritually we try to walk the journey with the parents and the child.”

It seems as though a month devoted to Childhood Cancer Awareness is simply not enough, but our team of professionals work tirelessly to create awareness and learning opportunities where we can.  It is emotionally challenging to comprehend. But the more we understand Childhood Cancers, the better prepared we are to give children and young adults the attention and care they deserve.