The types of cancers that develop in children are often different from the types that develop in adults. Childhood cancers,usually attacking children between the ages of 1 and 19, are often the result of DNA changes in cells that take place very early in life, sometimes even before birth. Unlike many cancers in adults, childhood cancers are not strongly linked to lifestyle or environmental risk factors and develop rapidly owing to the weak immune system of the children and their rapid growth of cells.
There are some exceptions, but childhood cancers tend to respond well to treatments such as chemotherapy (also called chemo). But cancer treatments such as chemo and radiation therapy can causelong-term side effects, so children who have had cancer will need careful follow-up for the rest of their lives.
In Uganda, the most common cancer in children is Burkitt’s lymphoma, which has been linked to viral infections and accounts for 50% of all childhood cancers. Also common are Kaposi’s sarcoma, and cancers affecting the bone marrow, blood, kidneys and nervous systems.
Each year, approximately 700 new cases of childhood cancer are diagnosed at the Uganda Cancer Institute alone. This accounts for over 40% of all new patients seen by the UCI annually. Although this is a good start to tackling cancer in children, there are many more cases of cancer that go undiagnosed. In addition, many children who are diagnosed do not receive proper treatment, often due to an inability to afford the extremely expensive surgery and drugs required to treat cancer. As a result, the mortality rates from childhood cancer are as high as 80% in various parts of the country.
The main barriers to treatment of childhood cancer in Uganda are limited knowledge, meaning that many cancers remain undiagnosed, limited resources and funding for treatment. However, when these barriers are overcome, and early diagnosis and proper treatment are available, 70-85% of many types of childhood cancer can be cured.