Aga Khan University, Nairobi: Saving children from cancer

Cancer, in any form, is perceived a ruthless killer. Its mention invokes more fear than HIV and Aids and the uncertainty surrounding its cause befuddles even specialists.

But cancer is not infectious and is rare in children to the extent that many parents do not imagine their little ones can be infected. Experts say growing awareness about cancer in children leads to a higher number of cases being detected, which in return allows more parents to treat the disease from an early stage.

It was against this backdrop that the Aga Khan Teaching Hospital, Nairobi organised an open day for childhood cancers.

In attendance were affected parents who narrated their challenging experiences to a spellbound audience and specialists who belted out what ought to be done in case childhood cancer comes knocking.

Prof William Karanja, a paediatrician haemato-oncologist with over 20 years experience, gave early diagnosis and timely treatment as the bridges between life and death in childhood cancers that he said are curable “if diagnosed and treated early”.

He said one of every 15 cancer sufferers is a child and urged parents to look out for simple pointers such as persistent headache, swollen glands not accompanied by injuries, anaemia, random bleeding, dark patches in the skin, discharge from eyes, tumours and other indicators.

True life

The occasion was punctuated by true-life accounts from affected parents that left no doubt that childhood cancer was a danger lurking in every home.

Mother of five, Hawo Hussein from Nakuru, now popularly referred to as “Mama Fatuma” by owes the name to cancer that struck her youngest child, Fatumazara Hussein age four.

“It never occurred to us, her parents, even in our remotest imagination that our daughter’s breathing problems would be tracked down to cancer,” she started, her voice plaintive and tear provoking

“Several X-rays, surgical operations and other tests later, the best that doctors could do was drain out water from her clogged chest to provide evanescent relief. “We were in hospital every two weeks to have the water drained. It was expensive and inconclusive because the cause remained a mystery,” says Hawo. “As their trauma mounted amid endless surgical operations and sojourns in the intensive care unit (ICU) that revealed nothing conclusive, doctors at Karen Hospital decided to put our child on tuberculosis treatment. Her condition grew worse.

“After eight months of tinkering with diagnosis and treatment that cost us in excess of Sh7million with nothing to show for it, we gave in to suggestions from close friends and relatives to try India where doctors had a reputation for thoroughness.

Mama Fatuma says that what took local doctors eight months to no avail took Indian doctors only three weeks to correctly diagnose the disease.

“They told us to our shock and disbelief that our daughter was down with lymphoma cancer (cancer affecting a gland) in the chest and advised that we return to Kenya and continue with the treatment they had prescribed under the care of a qualified paediatrician haemato oncologist. That is how we landed in the hands of Dr Macharia.

Hawo says her daughter, now aged seven and in Standard Two at a Nakuru school, went into complete remission and is now cancer free.

Businesswoman Lilly Njeru noticed a tumour under her son’s nose when he was four. A paediatrician she consulted prescribed antibiotics, but the tumour did not disappear. “As the tumour was just above the palate, a dental problem was suspected and I was referred to the University of Nairobi Dental Clinic where, after surgery to remove the tumour and subsequent tests carried out at the Nairobi Hospital, cancer was diagnosed.

“It was as though a death sentence had been pronounced on my son. I had all along thought Cancer was a disease only for the adults. I was dead wrong. To add insult to injury, friends advised me not to bother spending money because there was no cure for cancer anyway and it was only a matter of time before my son died. I was devastated!

Dead wrong

Macharia to whom she was referred after the benumbing diagnosis restored hope that her son would live.

“He took us through counselling sessions for a whole month, citing cases that had recovered after correct diagnosis to allay our fear for the worst.

He put the boy on chemotherapy treatment and two years down the line, he was fully cured of cancer,” she says, her voice full of gratitude.

Roy Njeru, now aged 15, is a Form Two High School student with great dreams for the future. So what is cancer? Macharia describes this dreaded condition as failure of normal body mechanism to control regeneration of cells, leading to abnormal regeneration. Resultant excess cells are cancerous.

Though the cause is unclear, Macharia says some environmental factors or viral infections can collude with genetics to cause failure in children’s body control of cell multiplication.

He says childhood cancers are largely blood, glands or solid tumour orientated.

“Cancers rooted in glands, explains Prof Macharia, are known as lymphomas and they are the ones that cause swellings of glands in the armpits, groins, neck and other parts of the body. Outside the glands, lymphomas manifest in enlargement of the liver and spleen,” he explains.

“When glands inside a child’s eye swell in what is known as Retino Blastoma, parents can notice a peculiar shine that gives the look of a cat’s eyes, at times accompanied by a whitish discharge. The possibility of Cancer the logic conclusion.

He says Mama Fatuma’s child was a victim of a lymphoma manifest in the swelling of glands in the stomach and chest.

Source: Standard Media

About Ahmad Amirali

I am an educator by profession, pursuing my further career in teaching and learning. I love to read and, even more, love to share what I read.
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