No one is ever prepared to hear that their child has a life-threatening illness. Here is how you can cope
Get to know the role of the paediatric oncologist
For most parents, few things are as frightening as hearing the doctor tell you that your child has cancer. While dealing with their own fears, they must also face the task of helping their child understand his or her diagnosis.
The Weekly spoke to Dr Chan Lee Lee, consultant paediatrician and paediatric haematologist on what you need to know:
THE WORK OF A PAEDIATRIC ONCOLOGIST
A paediatric oncologist is a specialist who is trained in the field of paediatric hematology and oncology – so he or she looks after children who have blood and cancer disorders. Their work involves diagnosing and treating blood issues and cancers which may occur in children.
A DAY WITH THE PAEDIATRIC ONCOLOGIST
An average day begins with doing ward rounds to treat inpatients. The doctor then goes to the Day Care unit where patients come for follow-up treatment.
Their work involves sedating kids in order to perform investigations like bone marrow exams, doing lumbar punctures or delivering intravenous or intramuscular chemotherapy.
Patients who are not getting active chemotherapy will usually be looked after during the regular clinic follow-up.
SIGNS OF CANCER
The most common cancer in children is acute leukaemia. Symptoms may include intermittent fever, pallor, bone pains, distended abdomen or bruising that occurs spontaneously.
The general paediatrician will first assess the symptoms to see if they are significant, as these may also appear with other benign childhood illnesses.
If the paediatrician finds that the neck glands are swollen or there is an enlarged liver and spleen with other symptoms, they may refer you to the paediatric oncologist for further investigation.
Cancer may also show up in the form of a lump occurring, for example, in the neck, tummy or in part of a limb. Pain may not be an early symptom either.
Whenever an unusual swelling occurs, parents should get the child examined right away.
ADVICE TO PARENTS WHEN YOUR CHILD HAS BEEN DIAGNOSED WITH CANCER
Stay calm. Many childhood cancers have very good cure rates. Do not go “doctor shopping” or worse, turn to traditional medicines. The paediatric oncologist will explain how the diagnosis has been made and what treatment is required. It is also vital to follow the prescribed treatment.
In the unlikely event that insufficient information has been given, by all means seek a second opinion.
PAEDIATRIC ONCOLOGY FACILITY
Since paediatric cancers are not all that common, it is better to be treated in a paediatric oncology unit as the medical personnel will be familiar with ways to deal with children. The finer details of medical care for kids – such as how blood is taken for testing, how to sedate the child, how to give small volumes of medication – require experience and a specialised unit is better equipped to deliver it. This will increase the overall comfort of the patient as well.
ROLE OF YOUR CHILD’S PAEDIATRICIAN
During the active treatment of a child with cancer, the paediatric oncologist becomes the primary caregiver and doubles up as the general paediatrician who can also advise on the overall treatment and health of the child.
After the treatment/chemotherapy has been completed and the child is on intermittent review and follow-up, only then does the general paediatrician resume his or her role in looking after the common childhood illnesses.
Be careful about taking alternative treatment where there is no scientific basis or published results to prove its efficacy. In the end, your child’s health will be directly affected by the decisions you make, so make them wisely.
Consider joining a support group. Most hospitals who treat childhood cancers have their own groups. The National Cancer Society has a chapter which offers help to families and kids through Hospital Kuala Lumpur.