By John Mbugua
September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month (CCAM), recognized by childhood cancer organizations worldwide as a global collaborative campaign to raise awareness about childhood cancer and to express support for children and adolescents with cancer, the survivors, and their families. This year’s theme is ‘Better Survival’ achievable #throughyourhands.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), cancer of the white blood cells and brain tumors are the leading types of childhood cancers globally. In Sub-Saharan Africa, the most common types are non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, kidney cancer, and bone marrow cancer. In Kenya, the most common type of childhood cancer is Leukemia, followed by Retinoblastoma (eye cancer) and Wilms Tumor (kidney cancer). The ages of three – seven are the peak age of childhood cancer, but much younger children can still get it.
Causes of Childhood Cancers
The causes of most childhood cancers are not known. Current data indicates that almost 5% of childhood cancers are due to an inherited mutation (a genetic mutation from parents to their children). Most cancers in children, like in adults, are thought to develop because of genetic mutations that lead to uncontrolled cell growth and, eventually, cancer. In adults, these gene mutations reflect the cumulative effects of aging and long-term exposure to cancer-causing substances. On the other hand, identifying potential environmental causes of childhood cancer has been difficult, partly because cancer in children is rare, and it’s challenging to determine what exposure the child had early in their development.
Common Signs of Childhood Cancer
- Difficulty walking
- Blurred/double vision
- Persistent vomiting
- Difficulty handling objects
- Lack of appetite
- Body swelling
The Survival Rate of Childhood Cancers
Only 20% of Kenyan children with cancer survive, in contrast to developed countries, where the survival rate is up to 80%. It is mainly due to late diagnosis, lack of access to facilities with the capacity to make an early diagnosis, and the high cost of treatment for diagnosed cases.
Between January 2007 to January 2009, a study was conducted at Moi Teaching and Referral Hospital to investigate the reasons for discontinuation of treatment by childhood cancer patients, whose survival rate was 19%. The most common reasons given were financial difficulties (46% of respondents), lack of health insurance (27% of respondents), and transport difficulties (23% of respondents).
Some study participants reported they were discouraged from taking their children to the hospital due to negative attitudes of family members and others in the community, owing to the poor survival rates of cancer. Others expressed distrust of the health care systems, and some expressed their fears of the side effects experienced during treatment.
What is Compassion Kenya doing?
We have recorded 29 deaths out of 86 cancer illnesses reported between 2017 and 2022, translating to a more than 66% survival rate.
If diagnosed early, children can survive cancer and live healthily well into adulthood. Compassion International Kenya (CKE) pays the bulk of the hospital costs through the frontline church partners. The National Health Insurance Fund (NHIF) defrays other costs for enrolled members. These include consultation fees, chemotherapy, and radiotherapy sessions. Compassion also provides spiritual ministry and conducts sensitizations on the benefits of health screening, especially among children. We also encourage NHIF enrollment of program participants, so it is easier for all children diagnosed with cancer to seek treatment in public health facilities.
- Siegel RL, Miller KD, Fuchs HE, Jemal A. Cancer Statistics, 2021. CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians 2021; 71(1):7–33..
- Merab E & Lidigu L. Kenya tops Africa in the cost of treating cancer in children. Also available at https://nation.africa/kenya/news/kenya-tops-africa-in-cost-of-treating-cancer-in-children-3280346