Kids and cancer: what you need to know
Childhood cancer is on the rise – early diagnosis is your best weapon against the dreaded disease.
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 In 2016, the shocking news that singer Michael Bublé and wife Luisana’s three-year-old son Noah had been diagnosed with cancer put the spotlight on a disease no parent really expects their young child to get.

Yet the unthinkable happens more often than you might imagine. In South Africa one in 600 children under 16 is diagnosed with cancer, says Vanessa Vermaak, Western Cape divisional manager of the CHOC Childhood Cancer Foundation South Africa.

“The good news is 70 to 85 per cent of these children can be cured if the diagnosis is made early enough.”

Sadly in SA the diagnosis rate for childhood cancer is far behind that of developed countries, Dorothy du Plooy of the Cancer Association of SA says. So it could be that many more kids have cancer and have died of it than the figures show.

Keeping records of children with the disease became compulsory only last year.

The most common cancers in kids


This is the most common form of cancer in children in South Africa and globally, Du Plooy says.

Leukaemia starts in the bone marrow but quickly spreads through the blood to lymph glands and other parts of the body. If it isn’t diagnosed and treated early enough it can be fatal. With early diagnosis 85 per cent of children make a full recovery. 

Brain tumours

In children they start mostly in the lower areas of the brain, such as the brain stem (adults are more inclined to develop this cancer in the upper areas of the brain). Kids have about 60 per cent chance of beating the disease. 

Lymph cancer

It starts in lymph tissue such as the tonsils and thymus, spreads to the bone marrow and other organs and causes symptoms such as fever and swollen lymph glands. Kids have about 75 per cent chance of recovery. 


About one in every 9 000 children worldwide gets this rare kidney cancer.

It usually occurs in kids younger than three and the first symptom could be a swelling or lump in the stomach. Sometimes there is also fever, pain, nausea or loss of appetite.

Children with this cancer have an 80 per cent chance of survival but it depends on the stage of the tumour, Professor Alan Davidson of Red Cross Children’s Hospital in Cape Town says. 


It usually starts as an adrenal gland tumour, then spreads through the bone marrow system to the rest of the body.

It occurs mostly in children under five and is more common in boys. Kids with this cancer have a 50 to 80 per cent chance of beating the disease.

Warning signs

  • Parents should get medical help if these symptoms don’t clear up quickly.
  • Inexplicable pain, especially at night.
  • Weight loss, tiredness and pallor.
  • The child bleeds or bruises easily.
  • Abnormal lumps or swelling.
  • Loss of consciousness or balance.
  • Pupils react abnormally to light.
  • Fever that lasts longer than two weeks.
  • A white spot on the eye, sudden squint, blindness or bulging eyes.
  • A lump in the abdomen or neck, head, limbs, glands or testicles.
  • Pain in the back, legs and joints and bones that break easily.
  • Change in balance or speech.
  • Delayed developmental milestones.
  • Headaches with or without nausea.
  • An enlarged head.

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