Blame pollution for cancer in young

Blame pollution for cancer in young

Inspite of the spread of different types of cancer across the country, popular discourse in India has been limited to only three kinds: lung, oral and breast cancer. Practically every child today is aware that smoking leads to cancer of the lungs and chewing tobacco gives rise to tumours in the mouth, but what is going largely unrecognised and unreported are the cancers which occur in children, also known in medical terminology as paediatric cancers.

Studies by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) reveal that childhood cancer cases have gone up from 2.5 per cent to over 5.5 per cent of all reported incidents in the country in the last two decades. Of the seven lakh Indians who fall prey to cancer every year, roughly 40,000 are children. More so, Delhi throws up the bulk of new cases -- 149 per 10 lakh population annually - second only to Chennai which records a higher 159.

Doctors underline that the types of cancers that develop in children are often different from the ones in adults and the causative factors also vary greatly. Sadly, little research has been undertaken on this, putting children at a greater risk of contracting cancer every passing day.

Dr Suparno Chakrabarti, Director, Department of Haemato-Oncology, Dharamshila Cancer Hospital and Research Centre, says, “Up to 10 years back, getting an under-14 patient at our hospital was a rarity. But now, I get babies barely a few months old. What baffles us doctors is: How do babies, who neither smoke nor drink, get cancer?”

“The strongest risk factor we have arrived at,” he says further, “is radiation from high voltage power grids and cell phone towers. These interfere with the rapidly growing cells of children’s bodies and cause malignancies. In US and Europe, people are advised against taking up residence near such facilities; but in India, we neither have such studies nor advisories.” 

Cancers occurring in children mainly comprise leukemia (blood cancer), brain tumour, neuroblastoma (cancer of nerve cells), Wilm’s Tumour (cancer of the kidney), lymphoma (cancer of lymph tissue) and retinoblastoma (cancer of the eye).

Several doctors believe that environmental pollutants start manipulation of cells at the foetal stage itself and sometimes, a baby develops cancer right in his or her mother’s womb. Dr Sandeep Jain, Radiation Oncologist, Medanta Medicity, explains, “Many chemicals known to damage genes are present in vehicular emissions, food adulterants and pesticides. The baby may not have come into the world yet but it is consuming these through his mother.” It’s a different matter altogether if the mother is a smoker herself, Dr Jain adds.    

There is also the additional problem of children being too small to explain discomfort, loss of appetite, headaches and fatigue. “For this reason, it becomes even more important that parents watch out for unexplained and persistent fever, vomiting, bleeding, paleness, catching infections often and weight loss in a child. Cat’s eye reflex is a sign of possible retinoblastoma,” informs Dr Preeti Jain, Oncology Surgeon, Columbia Asia Hospital. Cat’s eye reflex is a condition when a human eye stricken with malignancy glows in the dark like in felines. 

At the same time, child patients of cancer have an advantage over adults for the fact that chemotherapy works much better on their bodies. “A youngster’s body cells are constantly dividing and forming anew, making chemotherapy much more effectual in killing cancerous growth. However, this, sometimes, also leads to newer malignancies for which life-long follow-ups become mandatory,” states Dr Deepak Rautray of the International Oncology Centre, Fortis.

Worldwide, the cancer survival rate among children is 80 per cent. Only 20 per cent die of the disease. Unfortunately in India, the figure is exactly the opposite. “In our country, people find it much easier to make a new baby than to cure an ailing one,” laments Jyotsna Govil, secretary, Indian Cancer Society, “And the culprit behind it is the belief that cancer treatment is extremely expensive.”

“The truth, however,” she adds, “Is that cancer treatment is very successful and cost-effective if the child is brought in in time. Not just that, if you are financially weak, you can approach various government agencies and NGOs for help. The Government hospital you approach will itself direct you to such organisations.” “Being diagnosed with cancer is not the end of the road. Submitting to it, is.”

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