Looking at Zafar Mahomed, you see a healthy 20-year-old living his best life. The Durban pharmacy student enjoys an active lifestyle and is making a home with the love of his life. What you would never know is that this young man spent the early years of his childhood fighting cancer.
At just 20 months his life changed when he developed a permanent limp and had lingering flu symptoms. Concerned, his parents took him to see their GP.
His mother, Shenaaz Mahomed, still remembers how their doctor tried several medications to treat the flu symptoms and applied a cast to his leg believing that her son had a benign condition that needed correcting.
“The doctor felt that we were being too soft on Zafar by not forcing him to walk. Six miserable weeks later his health had deteriorated, and he had grown very pale,” she recalls.
“At this point the doctor ordered blood tests and when the results came back, our lives changed in an instant. I remember grabbing my handbag and rushing out of the pharmacy that my husband and I had just bought, with plans to start a family business. I did not set foot back through those doors for the next two years,” she says.
Diagnoses leads to answers
Following the blood test results, an almost two-year-old Mahomed was referred to paediatric haematologist, Dr Monica Vaithilingum at the Parklands Hospital in Durban.
“Zafar had leukaemia, a common type of blood cancer that develops in the bone marrow. I was shocked that his condition had not been identified earlier at primary care level. Since Zafar’s first visit to the GP, his health had deteriorated significantly,” she says.
Mahomed’s treatment began immediately. He was just 22 months old.
According to Vaithilingum, more than 60% of patients in the developing world either do not have access to appropriate healthcare or are not diagnosed timeously.
Most childhood cancers can have a good outcome provided they are diagnosed early and treated appropriately.
“This is especially true of the most common type of cancer, acute leukaemia, which can be cured in up to 85% of children. It is therefore imperative that there is greater awareness of this condition among parents, teachers and primary healthcare professionals,” she asserts.
Living life to the fullest
It took three years to complete treatment and two years later Mahomed was finally declared cancer free. “I feel so fortunate to have had the care that I did. It is thanks to this that I am here today, able to pursue my passion in the medical field. I am also lucky to have found the person I want to spend the rest of my life with and we were recently married.
Signs of childhood cancer
Vaithilingum explains that early warning signs of childhood cancer can be non-specific but that some of the more common signs to look out for include:
- Persistent unexplained fevers, unexplained loss of weight and lethargy.
- Refusal to walk, bone pain, backache or a limp.
- A pale appearance, sudden bruising or tiny spots of bleeding under the skin appearing as a flat purple, red or brown dot.
- A change in behaviour and stopping normal activities – no longer running and playing.
- Lumps and bumps anywhere on the body, enlarged lymph glands in the neck, groin or armpits, lumps on the head, bones or in the abdomen – these lumps are often noticed at bath time.
- Sudden falls or disturbances in balance, headaches and persistent early morning vomiting.
- The onset of a squint or changes in vision.
“Many parents do not want to entertain the idea that their child may be seriously ill and hope that whatever it is will go away but time really is of the essence and it is better to seek care quickly, if only to rule out the presence of a life threatening illness,” she says.
“Even if a lump or tumour is not cancerous, it can still impact a child’s health and development so it is crucial to seek medical attention.
“Some parents fear that they carry cancer in their genes that was then passed on to their child but only a very small percentage of cancers have a genetic or inherited factor. Cancer is not contagious either and cannot be transmitted from one sibling to another, though a child undergoing treatment may need to be isolated some of the time to prevent them from contracting life threatening infections from other people.”