Cancer in children constitutes 5.5% of total cancer cases in India according to the Indian Council for Medical Research. This percentage has more than doubled from 2.5% ten years ago. In absolute numbers this means that there around 50,000 childhood cancers in India annually. A disturbing reality, however, is that only around one in 10 of the childhood cancer cases receives complete therapy. As a consequence, while cure rates for common childhood cancers like lymphoma and leukaemia are over 80% in the developed world, in India, the they have remained abysmally low at around 30%.
Treatment is available free of cost in a number of public health facilities but overcrowding and long waiting times makes it very difficult to receive timely, quality care.
The reasons behind these unacceptable statistics are numerous. Childhood cancer, like a number of other public health issues in India, is associated with considerable social stigma. Additionally, there are health system challenges like inadequate access to care and exorbitant treatment costs in the private sector. Treatment is available free of cost in a number of public health facilities but overcrowding and long waiting times makes it very difficult for children to receive timely and quality care. The result is that countless lives are snatched away prematurely and numerous families are destroyed. The direct and indirect costs to society are tremendous.
What needs to be done
There are several aspects of childhood cancer diagnosis and treatment in India that need to be strengthened.
Firstly, diagnosis and treatment services need to be more accessible to families all over the country. Currently, a number of the major cancer hospitals or those that have the requisite facilities are concentrated in big cities. Families who have a child suffering from cancer often need to travel long distances to access treatment. This only compounds the distress and anxiety.
Secondly, a child coping with cancer needs physical, mental and emotional support. Simply putting them on treatment is not enough. Cancer treatment is often very long drawn out and painful with children suffering from a number of side-effects. Efforts therefore have to be made to minimise pain as well as keep children in a positive frame of mind.
A child coping with cancer needs physical, mental and emotional support. Simply putting them on treatment is not enough.
Third, even if a child has been fully cured, it is vital that his or her health is monitored closely. This includes regular check-ups as well as nutritional support. In the absence of this, children often suffer from a relapse. They also become susceptible to infections due to weakened immunity which is a consequence of cancer and its arduous treatment. Also, during treatment, most children are unable to go to school and resuming studies after a break of a few months or years is very difficult. Thus, support with education post-treatment can allow childhood cancer survivors to lead productive lives.
Glimmers of hope
Some noteworthy efforts are being made to raise the profile of childhood cancer in India and also provide much needed support to affected children and their families. The Freedom from Cancer and Relief Research Foundation recently organised an awareness campaign to make people aware of the importance of diagnosing childhood cancer as early as possible.
Each one of us can make a difference by sponsoring a child's treatment or enabling their access to supportive services.
Cankids Kidscan is a large national charity that supports children battling cancer and their families through a range of services. They also provide low-cost accommodation ("Home Away From Home") for children and their caregivers who come to large cities like Delhi for treatment and post-treatment check-ups. In addition to this, Cankids has launched a campaign to light up the Taj Mahal in gold during the month of September. September is childhood cancer awareness month and the colour gold represents childhood cancer.
For every child who dies of cancer, the world loses several decades of life. Families that are left behind also experience tremendous agony. It is therefore imperative that all of us come together to save these precious lives. Let us not pass the buck to the government or another agency. Each one of us can make a difference by sponsoring a child's treatment or enabling their access to supportive services. Let us act now before another child loses his or her life to childhood cancer.
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