In the past, blood cancer diagnosis have always been met with despair and dread. Doctors may find chronic leukaemia in a routine blood test even before symptoms begins to show up. In the face of this terrifying diagnosis, knowledge is power in the midst of physical exams, blood tests and bone marrow tests, says Lauren Pretorius.
Pretorius is the chief executive of Campaigning For Cancer. The organisation has partnered with the Acute Leukemia Advocates Network (ALAN) to launch two information posters to help South Africans better understand leukaemia and manage the risks.
Pretorius believes that you can manage leukaemia fear by equipping yourself with knowledge.
“Leukaemia used to be a very scary word,” says Pretorius. “Most people in their forties or older can remember when it was a dangerous cancer. But as with many cancers, the last two decades or so have seen immense strides in treatment being made, and mortality rates are in steady decline. If you know what to look out for and where to get help and medical care, leukaemia need no longer mean a high risk of death.”
What you need to know about leukaemia
Leukaemia is a cancer that affects the blood and the tissues where your blood is formed, such as the bone marrow and the lymphatic system, causing rapid growth of abnormal blood cells.
One of the reasons leukaemia was so feared is because it’s the most common cancer in children, says Pretorius.
According to a South African study that looked at two paediatric oncology units in the Free State and Western Cape, 25% of the cancers children presented were a form of leukaemia.
A European paper noted that acute lymphoblastic leukaemia, which is the most common form of the disease to affect children, “accounts for 28% of all newly diagnosed cases of cancer in childhood”.
Early detection is vital in survival
As with many other cancers, the prognosis for children with leukaemia has improved. “The five-year survival rate for children with acute lymphocytic leukaemia (ALL) has greatly increased over time and is now about 90% overall,” says the American Cancer Society.
Pretorius adds that there are lots of reason to be hopeful.
Early detection of cancer is vital – the later the stage a child is at when they arrive at an oncology unit for treatment, the worse their chances.
“Do they have access to healthcare facilities, where they will get diagnosed and referred for treatment?” asks Pretorius. “Physical access to clinics and hospitals can be difficult, time-consuming and costly, delaying diagnosis, and then paediatric oncology units are relatively rare in the public sector.”
Other factors that affect children’s prognosis include their state of health – a child that is malnourished, or struggling with another disease (TB, perhaps, or HIV) has a higher risk of death.
Knowledge is power
To ensure that all children have the best shot at recovering from leukaemia if they get it, it’s important that adults across South Africa have an understanding of the cancer and its symptoms.
Parents, extended family, teachers, church youth leaders, sports coaches, any adult in contact with children and young people should be aware of the signs that might mean a child has leukaemia. The sooner red flags are raised, the better the child’s chances.
“That’s why Campaigning for Cancer has joined forces with ALAN to create and share these two posters summarising important info about leukaemia,” says Pretorius. “We are hoping that they will be widely distributed and displayed, so that empowering and life-saving knowledge is available to everyone.”