Each year in Canada, an estimated 1,000 children between the ages of 0 to 14 years will be diagnosed with cancer. Cancer is also the leading cause of death in children between that same age group. An estimated 1 out of every 250 adults between the ages of 20 and 39 are survivors of childhood cancer. Leukemia, lymphomas and cancers of the brain and/or the CNS (Central Nervous System) account for the majority of malignant childhood cancers.
Unlike certain types of cancers that are found in adults, the cause of childhood cancer is relatively unknown. A definitive link to any specific factors – such as environmental or lifestyle factors – has not been fully established. In adults, some of these factors that can contribute to cancer include whether or not the patient is a smoker, overexposure to radiation/carcinogens, hormones, obesity, chronic inflammation, and other viruses. Adults will also usually be at an increased risk of developing cancer if there is a family history of it.
While some children may be too young to discern the diagnosis that they are facing, others will, and it can oftentimes be an overwhelming and undoubtedly scary process. When talking to a child about how to cope with cancer, it is important to be as open and honest as possible, while ensuring you’re using terms that the child is able to understand. For example, rather than using words like “oncologist,” “radiation,” or “chemotherapy,” use words that the child is already familiar with, such as “doctor” and “medicine.” Children will often wonder what they did to deserve being diagnosed with cancer and may feel a sense of blame, so it is also important to reassure them that such a diagnosis is not their fault. As cancer can disrupt a child’s routine, explain to them that they may not be able to do the things they are used to doing – such as going to school or seeing their friends – but try to implement different ways for them to do that, such as communicating with their peers via telephone or video calls, and incorporating at-home activities into their routine, such as colouring and other fun projects. Having a sense of normalcy may help the child feel more at ease despite the difficult diagnosis.
When a child is diagnosed with cancer, they will usually be referred for treatment at a children’s facility – such as BC Children’s Hospital in Vancouver. These types of hospitals are specifically specialized in diagnosing and treating children with cancer and other childhood-related illnesses and diseases, and they provide comprehensive care in addition to support for families.