‘Cancer among top causes of children's deaths in S’pore’

Alicia Wong

Childhood cancers might be more curable compared to adult cancers but they are among the top causes of death in young children here.

This is the case in most parts of the developed world and is also increasingly common in emerging countries such as Malaysia, Thailand, says associate professor Allen Yeoh.

Yeoh is the medical director of the Viva-University Children’s Cancer Centre at the National University Hospital.

The associate professor explains that while doctors now cure 80 per cent of childhood cancers, other diseases such as diarrhea or pneumonia have a mortality rate of less than 0.01 per cent in Singapore.

This is why after accidents, cancer is the most common cause of death in children, and will remain so until more than 95 per cent of children with cancer can be cured, he says.

About 120 children living here are diagnosed with cancer annually. The number rises to 160 when foreign children seeking treatment are included.

This is a 30 per cent increase compared to some 40 years ago, although doctors are not entirely sure why, says Yeoh.

Since the 1990s, the number of deaths has remained at about 30 to 40 deaths per year.

Most common cancers among children

Common childhood cancers include leukaemia, brain tumour and bone cancer.

Leukaemia sees abnormal white blood cells growing abundantly and invading other tissues and organs. They slow the production of normal blood cells in the bone marrow.

It affects four out of every 10 children diagnosed with cancer in Singapore as blood cells grow the most during development and is most prone to genetic damage, says Yeoh.

Similarly, brain tumours are common because the brain is growing more in children than adults. Teenagers are more susceptible to bone cancer because of their growth spurts.

Yet, common childhood cancers generally have fewer mutations, making them less complicated and less resistant to treatment, he adds.

Children can also tolerate more treatment relative to their body weight.

“Their bodies are like a new car, able to take the more difficult terrains without breaking down,” he says.

What people can do for children with cancer

The rarity of childhood cancers made it crucial for researchers to work together in clinical trials. The large trials done in the U.S. and Europe resulted in improved cure for previously fatal cancers like leukaemia, says Yeoh.

With better diagnostics and imaging techniques today, doctors can diagnose, stage and determine the outcome of every child with cancer with a greater certainty.

Research has contributed to a “dramatic” improvement in the survival rate of childhood cancer, says the associate professor.

For instance, acute lymphoblastic leukaemia – the most common childhood cancer here – has an 85 per cent survival rate now, compared to 50 per cent some two decades ago.

The Viva-University Children’s Cancer Centre, which focuses primarily on childhood leukaemia, has developed highly effective chemotherapy to provide a good chance of cure, he notes.

The centre’s bone surgeons have also developed microsurgical techniques that enable a child with bone cancer to keep his/her limbs.

It is currently studying how to harness the body’s immunity to fight small amounts of highly resistant cancers.

Yeoh points out that the public and family members also have a role to play.

He reminds parents that 80 per cent of children can be cured so it is important to get them diagnosed and treated early.

Members of the public can integrate recovering children back into society, such as by helping children get back into school, he adds.

Yeoh addresses some common myths about childhood cancers:

Myth: That childhood cancers are incurable and treatment means a worse death.
Fact: The majority of children with cancer can be cured.

Myth: Treatment of cancer causes very severe vomiting.
Fact: With newer anti-vomiting agents that are highly effective, most children no longer suffer severe vomiting.

Myth: Childhood cancer is due to wrong food that the child had taken or the mother did not take care of the child properly.
Fact: Most childhood cancers have no known cause. It is not inherited and because the cause is unknown, it essentially cannot be prevented.

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A message from CCF:

Dear Yahoo! readers,

Thank you for your concern, encouragement and support for CCF’s children and their families. We truly appreciate your generous giving to CCF through Yahoo! Purple Hope.

We are grateful to our beneficiaries for consenting to share their stories.The intention is to help raise awareness of childhood cancer and not to garner donations for the individual families. Annually, CCF helps more than 500 children and their families, many of whom are in the same plight as those featured here.

The donations raised through Yahoo! Purple Hope will allow CCF to continue providing critical services to help these children and their families cope with their needs at various stages of their illness.

For any further enquiries, please email to admin@ccf.org.sg or contact Tan Lay Eng/ Koh Yang Cheng at 6593 6478/70.

May our joint efforts assist the children in winning the battle against childhood cancer.

Children’s Cancer Foundation

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