Tue | Nov 24, 2020

Little superheroes, fighting big battles - Childhood cancer under the spotlight this month

Published:Friday | September 8, 2017 | 12:00 AMCorey Robinson

More than 80 per cent of the children diagnosed with cancer at the Bustamante Hospital for Children can be successfully treated if the diagnosis is done early.

But several of these children have died because their parents and guardians failed to pick up on the early warning signs.

"There are some persons who believe children don't get cancer because it is an adult disease. Some believe that cancer is a death sentence. Cancer is not a death sentence," stressed Dr Sharon McLean-Salmon, paediatric oncologist at the Bustamante Hospital for Children, during an interview with The Sunday Gleaner last week.

"Like any cancer in adults, when it is advanced and spread to other parts of the body it becomes more difficult to cure ... so parents really need to be alert and aware of the signs because they are their children's advocates," added McLean-Salmon.

She listed high fevers, weight loss, appetite change, joint pains and swelling, vomiting and constant headaches as possible signs of cancer.

The oncologist noted that in addition to patients not recognising the signs, there are adults who deny them altogether or find other explanations for the symptoms.

Still other parents believe their child's illness may have some superstitious background, and that herbal medicine is the best way to cure it.

"A lot of persons, by the time they hit us, what you are hearing is that they thought it was worms so they gave the child home remedies or they weren't taking it for nothing," said McLean-Salmon.

But Kalifa Allen, whose nine-year-old daughter Danielle Dunn was diagnosed with cancer in 2010, said sometimes even the most alert parents may be victims of the system.

"A little girl who was diagnosed right after Danielle, her mommy saw that her tummy was getting big. She took her to a hospital and they were treating her for something else, and the child got to a stage where she was confined to a wheelchair," said Allen.

She added that when the child was finally taken to the Bustamante Hospital for Children it was too late.

"If I had taken my child to a public facility I might never have known what was going on. Danielle was just coughing and I just went to the doctor to get a cough syrup.

"If I hadn't gone to a doctor who gave me a full body check, maybe I would have just been given some cough medicine and sent on my way. I wouldn't have known that my child had a lump," said Allen.

Danielle has since undergone surgery, and is now cancer free. So, too, is Kahil Peterkin of Waterhouse in St Andrew, who turns three years old in December.

Kahil's father, Roy, told our news team that his heartache started about a year ago when he and his wife detected a swelling in the child's jaw. Having been treated at hospital, Kahil survived the life-threatening disease.

"He is doing great, better than ever. He is speaking now, and they thought he wasn't going to speak for a long time. We were going to send him to school this month but we decided to wait till January to send him," said Roy.

The Bustamante Hospital for Children sees between 30 and 35 new cancer cases annually.

This is about half the number of child cancer cases reported islandwide. Children between ages three and five years old represent the peak age for child cancer patients in Jamaica.

September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, and the hospital is marking the month under the theme: 'Little superheroes, fighting big battles'.

As part of the commemoration on cancer awareness month, there will be efforts to ensure that all health professionals are up to date with the processes involved in diagnosing childhood cancer.