Childhood leukaemia – Frequently Asked Questions
Rainbows and Smiles, an NGO that is dedicated to supporting children with cancer, shares the frequently asked questions when a child is diagnosed with leukaemia.
What is childhood leukaemia?
Leukaemia or blood cancer occurs when there is an overgrowth of abnormal white cells. These leukaemia cells grow to the point that they eventually consume and destroy the normal bone marrow. Eventually these cells spill out into the blood where they are detected. Leukaemia is the most common form of childhood cancer, accounting for almost one out of three cancers. The most common type of leukaemia is acute lymphoblastic leukaemia.
Why do children get leukaemia?
The exact cause of leukaemia is not known. Although the risk of many adult cancers can be reduced by lifestyle changes (such as quitting smoking), there is no known way to prevent childhood cancers. Most children with leukaemia have no known risk factors, so there is no way to prevent leukaemia from developing.
What are the warning signs?
Often, leukaemia starts with flu-like symptoms, including night sweats, fatigue, and fever. Other early symptoms include:
- Loss of appetite or sudden weight loss
- Bone or joint pain
- Shortness of breath
- Frequent infections
- Easy bruising or unexplained bleeding
How do you treat it?
The main goal when treating children with cancer is to cure them. While treatment may cause side effects, many medicines and therapies can make children more comfortable while they’re treated for cancer. Children with leukaemia should be treated in recognised paediatric oncology hospitals. Chemotherapy (anti-cancer drugs) is the main treatment. The chemotherapy is given as part of a treatment protocol or treatment plan. Chemotherapy is given by mouth, and/or into a vein or the spinal fluid. Some children may also receive radiotherapy. The initial treatment takes about six to nine months to keep leukaemia from returning and there will be maintenance therapy given over a period of two or three years.
How is the family of a child with leukaemia affected?
Cancer doesn’t only affect the child but the whole family and can feel overwhelming. Families shouldn’t be left to feel alone. We encourage parents to reach out and find support, talk to anyone on the care team or a hospital social worker. Many resources are available to help you and your child.
Feelings of stress and anxiety are normal when facing a life-threatening disease like leukaemia. There is a new normal that can be very distressing, this includes dealing with medical procedures, hospital visits, parents being separated and siblings feeling forgotten as the focus shifts to the child with cancer. Both the family and child may experience upsetting thoughts and feelings.
The child being treated may feel tired, as fatigue is the most frequently experienced symptom of leukaemia and its treatment. When possible, involve the child (with age appropriate communication) with their own cancer treatment.
Many children might feel guilty, as if the cancer is somehow their fault or they are being punished for something they did. Psychologists, social workers, and other members of the cancer treatment team can be a great help in reassuring them and helping them cope with their feelings.
Can leukaemia be cured?
Leukaemia can be cured, although not in all cases. Approximately 80% of children with leukaemia can be cured and go on to live normal and productive lives.
Rainbows and Smiles is a community-based, charitable foundation dedicated to providing emotional, social and financial support to children and their families when diagnosed with cancer or a blood disorder. For more, visit rainbowsandsmiles.org.za
This article is sponsored by Accord Healthcare in the interest of education, awareness and support. The content and opinions expressed are entirely the support group’s own work and not influenced by Accord in any way.