One of the passions closest to my heart is raising childhood cancer awareness. While I am a mother of two, I am also a nurse. However, my connection to this group of diseases doesn’t end there. My eldest sister was diagnosed with a type of childhood leukemia (cancer of the blood cells) in March of 1994. Thankfully, she survived her cancer, and 26 years later, she gets the awesome responsibility of being an auntie to my two girls.
As providence would have it, I married a doctor who is Botswana’s only paediatric hematologist-oncologist (a doctor who treats children’s blood disorders and cancers). He is based at Princess Marina Hospital in Gaborone through collaboration with the Ministry of Health, Botswana-Baylor Children’s Clinical Centre of Excellence, Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital (both of the latter are located in Houston, Texas, USA).
As the title suggests, September 1st marked the beginning of Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. In Botswana, I come across many folks who are aware of what the pink ribbon stands for, and sometimes they mistakenly think it represents all cancer. However, childhood cancer is represented by the gold/yellow ribbon. So to increase awareness in Botswana, I’ve decided to interview my husband, Dr. Jeremy Slone, about childhood cancer.
If you would like to read some of his blogs about diagnosing and treating children with cancer in Botswana (Texas Children’s Hospital blog) – follow these links:
Celebrating Pediatric Cancer Superheroes in Botswana
Year In The Life Of A Pediatric Hematologist-Oncologist In Africa
Bringing Halloween Fun To Patients In Botswana
Bringing Smiles To Children With Cancer In Africa
Nkosana’s Story Of Survival From Metastatic Retinoblastoma
Question 1 – Why should parents care about childhood cancer awareness?
Dr. Slone – Even though childhood cancers are less common than many other childhood illnesses, if unrecognized they are fatal. If recognized too late, then even the best treatments are ineffective. The key is to find them early and treat them early.
Question 2 – You mentioned childhood cancers are rare, how common is it in Botswana?
Dr. Slone – While we know that in the USA, for example, that childhood cancer is the 2nd leading cause of death after accidents, we do not know where it falls in the list of causes of death in Botswana yet. It is likely still one of the more common causes, but we are not sure as many children with cancer in Botswana are likely never diagnosed.
Question 3 – What is the key to parents raising awareness in our community?
Dr. Slone – Number one is debunking the myth that children do not get cancer or that it is only a high-income country problem. The truth is that it does happen in children, even in Botswana. Second, talking about the fact that most childhood cancer is treatable and survivable!
Question 4 – Probably the question most parents want to know is, what are the signs and symptoms of cancer?
Dr. Slone – It varies by the type of cancer. It can range from fevers for several days without a cause; tiredness; paleness; swelling in the neck, abdomen, arms or legs; vomiting first thing in the morning, or dizziness/trouble walking. Unfortunately, those things can all be non-specific to cancer and look like other illnesses, but if the symptoms persist for greater than 2 weeks, then you need to think of things other than common causes.
Question 5 – What is the best way for parents to monitor their child for the development of cancer?
Dr. Slone – Regular check-ups by a pediatrician is one of the best ways to find signs early. Early recognition of cancer symptoms can be life-saving! Often, pediatricians may find something incidentally on a well-child examination and refer them for further tests or consultation.
Another great way to watch for signs of retinoblastoma (a type of cancer of the eye) is to look for the loss of the red-eye reflex in a photograph with a flash. A white pupil on one eye and a red pupil on the other eye is a common way to discover this, but could also be found through routine examination when the child’s doctor shines the bright light into their eyes checking for the red reflex.
Remember that routine well-child exams are important not just for immunizations, but also for monitoring growth and development and detecting abnormal findings early. For further information, please visit this link for pamphlets listing some of the common signs and symptoms based on the body system.
Question 6 – What ways can the average parent raise awareness in their community for childhood cancer?
Dr. Slone – A simple way to raise awareness would be to add a gold ribbon to their profile picture in social media accounts like Facebook. You can click to add a frame to your profile picture to ‘go gold’ for childhood cancer awareness month and use the hashtag #goGOLD.
If parents would like to take it a step further, they can share this blog post to their social media as well and talk about the signs and symptoms on their wall so it will show up in others’ newsfeeds.
For the parent that is worried that something is wrong because their child has been ill and it isn’t getting better, encourage them to be their child’s advocate. No one loves a child like their parents, so encourage them to be persistent in getting answers from healthcare workers or to seek second or even third opinions.
Most childhood cancer patients in Botswana have been seen by many healthcare providers, but finally, someone recognized the disease as cancer and referred them to our program. Many possibly die without ever being diagnosed.
We are doing more to increase awareness among healthcare workers and to date, we have completed training in recognition of cancer signs and symptoms in 14 of Botswana’s hospitals, but more work needs to be done. Sharing the free PDF pamphlets with general practitioners and hospitals throughout Botswana could help increase awareness as well. You could ask your paediatrician to make them available in the waiting area for families to read.