Data from the World Health Organization (WHO) revealed that an estimated 150, 000 children worldwide are diagnosed with childhood cancers. The IARC World Cancer Report 2014 suggested that the incidence of childhood cancer is between 0.5% and 4.6%. Closer to home, 180 to 200 children and teenagers in Singapore are diagnosed with cancer annually. They make up for about 1% of all cancer patients in the country.

35% of childhood cancers are leukaemia

Leukaemia is the most common childhood cancer in Singapore, accounting for 35% of total cases. Brain cancer comes in second, making up for 20% of the total diagnosed cases, followed by lymphoma at 10%. Other types of cancers that have been more commonly found in children and teenagers are eye tumours, kidney tumours, adrenal tumours, bone tumours and germ cell tumours.

When a patient is diagnosed with leukaemia, it means that his or her blood and bone marrow – the factory house where blood cells are produced in the body – are compromised. More white blood cells, instead of red, propagate and they are mostly of the abnormal variety, preventing the patient from fighting against infections successfully.

There is still no confirmed cause for leukaemia, but studies point to genetics, previous bone marrow issues, as well as exposure to radiation as possible explanations. Symptoms of leukaemia include bruising of the skin, anaemia, palpitations, and a general sense of weakness, but these symptoms are notoriously hard to pinpoint.

Treatments for leukaemia do follow similar tactics used against other cancers, including chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Stem cell transplants are also done in some cases. The advancement in technology has increased the survival rate of childhood cancer patients in Singapore, from 67% in the last few decades to 80% in recent years.

Raising awareness for more accessible care

WHO has reported that about 80% of childhood cancer patients were able to recover from their condition. However, they also found that 90% of the mortality rates in childhood cancer cases are patients from lower income groups. Children from these groups lack access to medical resources, thus raising global awareness of childhood cancer is important to help individual countries make treatments and medical care affordable and accessible.

Compared to the number of adult patients, the number of childhood cancer cases in Singapore is significantly lower. However, children with cancer usually do not comprehend all the implications of their conditions, while parents of these children tend to be young and might feel lost at the development. Raising awareness of childhood cancer will help to provide the much-needed support for these families.

One example of such an event is Hair for Hope organised by the Children's Cancer Foundation (CCF) annually. In 2016, more than 60 organisations have pledged to support Hair for Hope and more than 3,000 people have shaved their heads to pledge support for childhood cancer patients.

Hair for Hope has been running for 14 consecutive years, and is the most prominent event that aims to raise awareness about childhood cancers locally. It has contributed greatly to increase understanding of childhood cancer in Singapore, even raising funds to ease some financial burdens of those affected by childhood cancer. Perhaps more of such events could be launched in future to support those children and their families in the battle against cancer. MIMS

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