Sep 2017 2nd Edition

Childhood cancer: What you need to know

Between 800 and 1 000 South African children under the age of 15 are diagnosed with cancer each year. Most children can be treated successfully if the disease is detected at an early stage.

For this reason, parents and child-minders should ensure that they have some awareness of childhood cancers and their possible symptoms.

September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month and Vuk’uzenzele is putting a spotlight on the disease to help you recognise early warning signs.

Know the early warning signs

Cancers in children tend to differ from those found in adults, most often occurring in the developing cells such as in the tissues of the bone marrow, blood, kidneys and nervous system.

A number of different types of cancer may occur in children and these may cause a variety of different symptoms. It is, however, essential to seek medical assistance immediately if your child displays some of the common early warning signs. Among others, these may include:

  • Continued, unexplained weight loss.
  •  Headaches, generally accompanied by vomiting, often occurring in the early morning or evening.
  •  Increased swelling or pain in bones, joints, back or legs.
  •  A lump or mass in abdomen, neck, chest, pelvis or armpits.
  •  Development of excessive bruising, bleeding or a rash.
  • Constant infections.
  • A whitish colour behind the pupil.
  • Persistent nausea or vomiting
  • Constant tiredness or noticeable paleness.
  •  Eye or vision changes that occur suddenly and then persist.
  •  Recurrent fevers of an unknown origin.


As childhood cancers tend to differ from those found in adults, they require specialist treatment by a paediatric oncologist. Treatment options vary and will depend on the type of cancer and how far it has advanced. Treatment may include chemotherapy, surgery, radiation or a combination of these.

Stem cell bone marrow transplantation may be used as part of the treatment for blood cancers, such as leukaemia.

How you can save a life

While the chances of finding a donor match for someone with leukaemia or another life-threatening blood disease is low (around one in 100 000), it is possible that you could be a match and your bone marrow could potentially save someone’s life.

Any healthy person between the ages of 18 and 45 can become a bone marrow donor. All that is required is a small sample of blood, which is sent to a specialised laboratory for tissue typing.  The results are  placed on the South African Bone Marrow Registry. To become a donor, call 0800 12 10 82 toll free or visit

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