Childhood cancer uncommon, but rising

In the early 1980s and 1990s, parents were hesitant to get cancer treatment for their children, but now things have improved 

by AZALEA AZUAR / Pic credit: sunwaymedical.com

CANCER cases among children are on the rise despite being less common than in adults. 

According to Sunway Medical Centre (SMC) paediatric haematologist and oncologist Dr Eni Juraida Abdul Rahman, the latest figures in 2000 revealed that 750 to 800 children in the country have been diagnosed with cancer. 

The Malaysian Society of Paediatric Haematology and Oncology revealed that there are 77.4 per a million children aged less than 15 years who have been diagnosed with cancer. 

However, she believed that cases are rising since more patients are coming forward. 

“In the early 1980s and 1990s, parents were hesitant to get cancer treatment for their children, but now things have improved,” she said during SMC’s “All About Cancer” webinar recently. 

Dr Eni Juraida observed that Hospital Kuala Lumpur, which is the biggest hospital that treats children, has increased the number of cases in childhood cancer to 180 cases a year from between 120 and 150 cases previously. 

The most common types of cancer in children are leukaemias, brain and other nervous system tumours, lymphomas, bone cancers, soft tissue sarcomas, kidney cancers, eye cancers and adrenal gland cancers. 

Accounting up to 31.1%, leukaemia is the most common cancer among children from newborns to 14 years old while lymphomas (20.7%) are more common among teenagers between 15 and 19 years. 

Dr Eni Junaida said compared to adults, children have better tolerance towards treatment since adults have more comorbidities. 

“Looking at long term outcomes, 3% will live at least 30 years with no health problems, but the rest will have some form of health problems as the longer they live, the more likely that they might encounter other health issues. 

“Childhood cancers are treatable, and potentially for good, with survival rates of more than 80% for some types of cancers,” she said. 

However, treatment is demanding for the family not only financially but physically and emotionally, which Dr Eni Junaida noted is something that needs to be looked into. 

According to the Health Ministry, tobacco is the leading cause of cancer in Malaysia where it has accounted for 22% of cancer deaths. 

The ministry estimated that patients spent roughly RM132.7 million just to treat lung cancer caused by smoking. 

Responding to this, Health Minister Khairy Jamaluddin Abu Bakar has been working on a smoking ban for individuals who were born after 2005 under the “Generational End Game” in the Tobacco and Smoking Control Act. 

Meanwhile, SMC haematologist Dr Hon Siong Leng said risk factors are divided between internal and external. 

Internal factors include genetics and age. As the patients grow older, their repairing mechanism in the body slows down, while external factors include physical, chemical and biological carcinogens. 

“External agents can be divided physical factors such as an excessive ultraviolet as well as ionising radiation; chemical factors such as asbestos component of the tobacco smoking; excessive alcohol consumption; aflatoxin, which is a food contaminant; as well as arsenic, which is a contaminant in the drinking water. 

“The biological factor is what we call an infection caused by viruses, bacteria or parasites,” she explained. 

According to the Global Cancer Statistics 2020, the most common types of cancer in adults are solid organ cancers which are breast cancer, lung cancer and liver cancer. 

However, cancers that are more prevalent in childhood such as non-Hodgkin lymphoma, leukaemia and multiple myeloma are also the top 10 cancers in adulthood. 

Dr Hon also stated that in 2019, 44,000 out of the 32 million population are living with cancer, where half have died from the disease. 

She said since cancer is common, individuals should get tested the very moment they feel something is not right, to get better outcomes. 

“Most cancers are common nowadays and are treatable,” she said.