Parents urged to watch for signs and symptoms of cancers in their children
With September being the Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, Hamad Medical Corporation (HMC) is urging parents to closely monitor their children’s health by constantly watching out for any unusual signs and symptoms.
The most common cancers of children are: leukemia, brain and other central nervous system tumors like lymphoma (including both Hodgkin and non-Hodgkin), and solid tumors such as neuroblastoma, Wilms tumor, rhabdomyosarcoma, retinoblastoma and bone cancer.
Leukemia, which is a group of cancers of the bone marrow and blood, is the most common childhood cancer. Most childhood leukemia is acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL) and most of the remaining cases are acute myeloid leukemia (AML). Chronic leukemia is rare in children.
“Patients with acute leukemia can present with general symptoms such as bone and joint pain, fatigue, weakness (feeling tired with decrease in regular activity), loss of appetite, pale skin, bleeding or bruising, weight loss, painless lumps in the neck, underarm, or groin and other symptoms. Acute leukemias can grow quickly, so they need to be treated (typically with chemotherapy parallel to supportive measures) as soon as they are found,” said Dr. Naema Ali Al Mulla, Senior Consultant in Hematology & Oncology at HMC’s Pediatrics Department.
ALL is most common in early childhood, peaking between two and four years of age. Cases of AML are more spread out across the childhood years, but they are slightly more common during the first two years of life and during the teenage years.
“Leukemia is a cancer that starts in early blood-forming cells (immature blood cells). Most often, leukemia is a cancer of the white blood cells, but some leukemia starts in other blood cell types,” explained Dr. Al Mulla, pointing out that once a normal cell turns into a leukemia cell, they don’t go through the normal process of maturing. “In most cases, the leukemia cells spill into the bloodstream fairly quickly and from there it can spread to the rest of the body.”
She stressed that leukemia cells build up in the bone marrow (which is like the factory of forming all blood cells) and can congest the growth of normal blood cells. “As a result, a child may not have enough normal red blood cells, white blood cells and blood platelets.”
Dr. Al Mulla noted that the leukemia cells may invade other areas of the body, which can also cause symptoms such as fatigue and pale skin, infections and fever, easy bleeding or bruising, bone or joint pain, swelling of the abdomen, loss of appetite, headaches, vomiting and trouble breathing, swollen lymph nodes, swelling of the face and arms, rashes and gum problems.
The pediatric hematology/oncology expert mentioned that there are a few known risk factors for childhood leukemia. “Some risk factors are genetic factors which are part of the DNA (the substance that makes up the genes); some are due to: inherited syndrome like Down Syndrome; having a brother or sister with leukemia; environmental risk factors; radiation exposure; and immune system suppression.”
She stated that the exact cause of most cases of childhood leukemia is not known and that most children with leukemia do not have any known risk factors. “It’s important to diagnose childhood leukemia as early as possible and to determine what type of leukemia it is so that treatment can be tailored to provide the best chance of success,” Dr Al Mulla stressed.
Parents who notice any cancer-related signs and symptoms in their children should seek urgent medical advice or get a referral to see cancer specialists at Hamad General Hospital’s Pediatrics Department.