Stuart Cramer, DO
Aflac Medical Director, Palmetto Health Children’s Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders
September is Childhood Cancer and Blood Disorders Month – a time to reflect on these serious diseases and raise awareness in our community. Cancer in children is rare; however, it is still the leading cause of death by disease past infancy in the United States. More than 40,000 children undergo treatment for cancer each year.
The Children’s Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders at Palmetto Health Children’s Hospital provides world class care right here at home. Last year, 45 children in our community were diagnosed with cancer and more than 700 children were treated for a blood disorder.
What is cancer?
Basically, cancer is when cells undergo a change that causes them to divide uncontrollably, have the capacity to spread throughout the body and invade normal tissues. When normal tissues are invaded they do not work as they should. For example, leukemia cells crowd out normal blood cells being made in the bone marrow like weeds crowd out flowers in a garden.
What causes cancer in kids?
Unfortunately that is not an easy question to answer. The more common causes of cancer in adults – such as smoking and longtime exposure to environmental toxins – do not usually apply to young children. In some cases, cancer is caused by an inherited mutation passed from parent to child. Having a genetic condition, such as Down Syndrome, can increase risk of cancer during childhood.
The most common types of childhood cancer include leukemia, lymphoma and malignant brain tumors. Osteosarcoma (bone cancer) is more common in adolescents.
How can cancer be detected?
It’s not always easy to catch cancer right away because its symptoms can be confused with other, more common conditions.
Some signs to look out for include:
- Fever without an infection
- Frequent vomiting
- Headaches, accompanied with vomiting, especially in the morning
- Loss of energy, paleness
- Lumps or unusual swelling
- Persistent pain in an area of the body
- Sudden weight loss
How is cancer treated?
In the battle against cancer, many treatment options exist, including surgery, chemotherapy (drugs that enter the bloodstream to destroy cancer cells), radiation (sometimes used in conjunction with chemotherapy) and bone marrow transplants. Researchers are now using information gained about the biology of cancer cells to help in designing drugs that target cancer cells with less effects on normal cells. This is the future of more effective and less toxic drugs.
Because of major treatment advances in recent decades, nearly 90 percent of children now survive five years or more. This is a huge increase since the mid-1970s when the five-year survival rate was about 50 percent.
It is estimated that by the year 2020 there will be 500,000 survivors of children’s cancer in the United States.
What is sickle cell disease?
Sickle cell disease (SCD) is an inherited red blood cell disorder. People suffering from this disease have abnormal hemoglobin. Hemoglobin is a protein in the red blood cells that carries oxygen throughout the body. The abnormal sickle hemoglobin forms stiff rods within the red cell, creating a sickle shape. The sickle-shaped cells have a difficult time traveling through small blood vessels, obstructing blood flow to that part of the body and causing pain. A normal red blood cell lives for about 120 days, but a sickle cell will live only 10 to 20 days.
Most children with SCD experience pain periodically, whereas adolescents and adults may suffer from chronic, ongoing pain.
Facts about sickle cell disease
About two million people in the United States carry the sickle cell trait.
More than 5,000 babies are born with sickle cell disease each year.
One in every 10 African Americans has the sickle cell trait and one in every 500 has sickle cell disease.
There is no universal cure for sickle cell disease. Because children with sickle cell disease are at an increased risk of infection and other health problems, early diagnosis with newborn screening is important.
The signs and symptoms of sickle cell disease
Often, signs and symptoms don’t appear until an infant is at least four months old. Some symptoms to watch out for include:
- Delayed growth
- Periodic pain
- Hand-foot syndrome (pain, redness and swelling on the palms of the hands and/or the soles of the feet)
- Frequent infections
- Vision problems
Palmetto Health Children’s Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders
Most parents would travel the ends of the earth to get the best medical treatment for their children. Fortunately, families in South Carolina need not venture far from home. The Children’s Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders at Palmetto Health Children’s Hospital is the oldest and largest facility of its kind in the state. Our team numbers more than 30, including experts in all aspects of pediatric oncology and hematology. Our 12-bed inpatient unit provides 24-hour care, and our outpatient unit has facilities for consultation and treatment for children, adolescents and even young adults. Our Center is part of the Children’s Oncology Group, the largest pediatric cancer research organization in the world, which means children have access to state-of-the-art care. They receive this high level of expertise while families can stay together and receive support from their extended families, friends and community. To learn more about our Center, our programs and to read some incredible stories about our child patients, visit our website and the Children’s Hospital Facebook page.