AS many as 25 children are diagnosed with cancer each year, reflecting an increase over previous years that is proving worrisome for health officials.
“In one particular year we got a 30 per cent increase in brain tumours, and that is very concerning,” Senior Medical officer (SMO) at Bustamante Hospital for Children Dr Michelle Ann Richards-Dawson admitted yesterday.
The SMO, who was on a panel of guests at the weekly Jamaica Observer Monday Exchange at the newspaper’s Beechwood Avenue head office, said they started tracking the statistics in 2006.
The panel was assembled to discuss the issue ahead of LIME Foundation’s 6k Run-Walk scheduled for January 18 at which funds will be raised to help treat children with cancer.
Not only has there been an increase in the number of young patients being treated for the disease, but Dr Richards-Dawson said there are instances where they have lost track of children with cancer as they are unable to locate them for treatment.
“There is a number out there that we can’t account for, so that is part of our mandate as well, to keep a tight rein on all our patients… So if they can’t come into Bustamante, then we meet them at the nearest hospital to ensure they can still get their treatment,” she explained.
Dr Richards-Dawson said there is no clear, scientific proof as to what is causing the increase in cancer cases, although there are many theories.
“…there are so many different types of cancer, even in terms of speculation about certain types of food, and exposure to radiation and so on,” she said, adding, “some cancers you are born with, so when we diagnose children under one year old they more than likely had that in the uterus and the cells had started changing from normal cells to cancer cells from then.”
Asked where the largest number of new cases are from, Dr Richards-Dawson said, while there is a significant number from Kingston and St Andrew there is a concern about the number coming from Manchester and upper Trelawny. “We don’t have any scientific proof as to what the cause is, but that is our observation,” she said.
The rate of survival, according to the SMO, is greater for children diagnosed with cancer than it is for adults once they have had early diagnosis, early treatment, and adherence to treatment.
Dr Richards-Dawson said cancer in children is a very traumatic experience both for the young ones and their families as they can spend years receiving treatment.
“It means you have to be out of school for therapy, and a lot of times there are challenges. Some patients, as best as they will try, are unable to make the appointments because they have to travel, and we know that there are challenges with the public transportation system and affordability to travel,” she explained.
“If you don’t come for your appointment you can’t get your medication on time, and it is going to affect your management and it is going to make your prognosis not as good as it could have been.”
With more than 50 cancer patients currently admitted at Bustamante Hospital, Dr Richards-Dawson said the most common cancers being diagnosed are leukaemia (cancer of the blood), Wilms’ tumour (cancer of the kidney), and brain tumours.
“Some people don’t realise that children get cancer anywhere. They get cancer in the eye, brain, we even have children with cancer in the back of the throat, liver, kidney, heart, muscle, and bone,” she said, adding that therapy usually takes at least two to three years to go through the course of cycle of treatment which includes radiotherapy, chemotherapy, and supportive therapy.
Meanwhile Dr Richards-Dawson said there are significant costs associated with treatment of cancer, as there are some services which can only be provided by private providers.
“There are treatment modalities which are not available. Based on the complexity of the case, we have to go over and beyond what normally would have been done,” she said.
Radiotherapy, according to Dr Richards-Dawson, remains a major one, as the current facilities are unable to facilitate children. As such, the procedure is done privately at a cost of between $800,000 and $1 million.
In welcoming LIME Foundation’s efforts to raise funds to assist the hospital to care for children with cancer, Dr Richards-Dawson said this money will help to address the high cost of radiotherapy for some of the children.