Leukemia in children: Causes, symptoms, and treatment
By: Jasmine Marfatia
Published On: August 31, 2018
The prevalence of leukemia in India is increasing every year. This article will help you understand some potential causes, symptoms, and cures.
According to the American Cancer Society, Leukemia in India is the most common cause of cancer, which accounts for almost one out of three cancer cases in children and teenagers.
While there are several different types of blood cancers that a child can be affected by, ‘acute lymphocytic leukemia’ is the one that is most prevalent, and is found in three out of four childhood blood cancer cases. Most other cases are ‘acute myelogenous leukemia’.
With regards to childhood leukemia in India, statistics reveal that the Indian pediatric population was reported as 34%, of which 25% were cases of acute lymphocytic leukemia in India. However, its is to be taken into account that our population faces certain other challenges that may skew the findings of such reports.
There may be several other cases that would have gone unreported due to lack of awareness, poor diagnosis, lack of necessary infrastructure, and lack of oncology clinics in many remote parts of the country. Greater awareness among parents, doctors, and healthcare professionals is crucial to reduce the number of pediatric leukemia cases in India.
Parents should be informed about the potential causes of cancer, and signs and symptoms that could point towards it. Moreover, they must also be educated on treatment options, and resources for financial aid that will help parents overcome the expenses associated to treating childhood cancer.
Through this article, we hope to educate our readers on just that.
Potential causes of leukemia in children
You may already be aware that certain types, and cases of cancer are attributed to lifestyle related habits that could put a person at risk. These may include, smoking or alcoholism, lack of physical activity, poor diet or high intake of processed foods, or even chronic use of certain drugs or medications.
However, the same rarely applies to children, and in fact, these lifestyle habits often take several years to affect the health of an individual in such a drastic way.
So what then, are the potential risk factors of pediatric leukemia cases in India?
Genetic predisposition or inherited syndromes
Certain genetic factors and inherited conditions may increase the risk of the child getting cancer. Conditions like down syndrome(A genetic disorder causing delay in development and intellectual growth) and li-fraumeni syndrome (predisposition to rare cancers) have been linked to leukemia in children.
A weakened immune system
A weak or compromised immune system increase risk of getting leukemia, due to reduced immune defences. Some immune system related conditions include bloom syndrome, ataxia-telangiectasia, wiskott aldrich syndrome etc.
Lifestyle related habits of the parents
Parents who may have consumed alcohol, or tobacco, or had suffered from obesity, may put their child at risk of cancer. Increased exposure to harmful radiations too, may be a contributing factor.
Environment related risks
Environmental factors like excess exposure to UV rays of the sun, vehicular pollution, and electromagnetic radiations from mobiles, microwaves, or phone towers, may be harmful and increase risk of cancer. Exposure to chemical, and pesticides have also been associated to high risk of cancer.
Potential signs and symptoms to look out for
With cancer, or in fact any medical condition, early diagnosis is crucial in the treatment procedure. If the cancer is detected in it’s later stages, it may become difficult to treat or cure it. However, if diagnosed in it’s initial stages, leukemia survival rate in India and worldover, has a been strong.
The success rate of treatment of pediatric blood cancers is 70-75% in some cancers, while it is 90-95% in others. Early detection then plays an important role in the effectiveness of treatment. Below are some signs and symptoms that parents can look out for in their children.
Child has been diagnosed with anemia in the past
Anemia is a very common condition resulting from low red blood cells count, low white blood cells count, and low platelets. While anemia is easily treatable with some medication, and may not necessarily indicate leukemia, it is always safer to get a medical professional’s opinion.
Swelling of the belly can take place if the leukemia cells collect in the spleen or liver, causing the abdominal area to look enlarged or swollen.
Bone and joint aches
The buildup of cancerous cells around the surface of bones and joints can cause aches and pains.
Swollen lymph nodes
Swollen lymph nodes may be identified as small or large lump under the surface of the skin, in areas like neck, underarms, collarbones, and groin. If you do notice anything like it, have a doctor check it.
Bleeding gums and rashes
Myelogenous leukemia is associated with symptoms of bleeding or painful gums, or rashes on the skin, due to the accumulation of the cancerous cells.
It is to be noted that not all these symptoms may not necessarily indicate leukemia, but having them checked out by a medical professional would be a good idea.
Treatment options for leukemia in children
There are some commonly practiced treatments, as well as new alternative cancer treatments. That said, the cost for each type of treatment is quite high, adding significant financial burden to the family.
Therefore it is important that parents of children with leukemia understand the health, as well as financial implication before taking a decision on the treatment.
More commonly known as ‘chemo’, it is the use of drugs to treat or kill cancer cells that have already spread in the body. While radiation and surgery can affect cancerous cells only in a certain part, chemo medication has its effects on the entire body.
It is often used as palliative treatment, when cancer is in its advanced stages, with the goal to reduce pain or improve the patient’s quality of life.
Radiation is most commonly associated with cancer treatment. It uses high-energy x-rays, gamma rays, beams, or protons to damage or destroy cancer cells, and prevent them from multiplying or spreading to other parts of the body.
Radiation comes with some side effects, because the rays may also affect other cells in our body. Side effects include fatigue, nausea, hair loss, skin problems, appetite loss, etc.
Targeted therapy is a relatively new technique that uses drugs to attack only cancer affected cells. It is similar to radiation, but has different side-effects because it is more specific in it’s target.
Immunotherapy uses one’s own body and immune system to fight cancer. Certain proteins are given to patients, to stimulate their immune system to work harder in order to fight the cancerous cells. In most cases, it is used in a combination with another treatment.
Bone marrow transplant surgery
The bone marrow is a spongy tissue found inside bones, and is responsible for production of red blood cells. A bone marrow transplant is a surgical procedure carried out to replace the sufferers damaged bone marrow with a healthy one. This is the most used surgical procedure to tackle leukemia.
Can you afford the high cost of cancer treatment?
These cancer treatments have their positives and negatives, which your doctor can explain best. But the real problem arises when a child already affected by the leukemia can’t access proper cancer cure and treatments due to financial constraints.
Regardless of mediclaims, insurances, or medical loans, majority of the Indian population is not in a position to afford even basic treatment for cancer, such as chemotherapy and radiation, let alone surgeries - which would completely deplete the family’s financial savings, even if they have been saving for years.
How crowdfunding can help you with leukemia treatment
In these situations, people need to look at available alternative cancer treatment or different ways to raise funds for cancer cure, such as crowdfunding, to help them pay for treatment.
You may like to read this blog on how medical fundraising in India is beating cancer. By using their survival stories as sources of inspiration, we’d like to encourage other parents and guardians of children with leukemia, to attempt crowdfunding and overcome all financial struggles related to getting treatment for their children.
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