3 things I learnt about the early warning signs of childhood cancer

In SA, only 50% of all children who die from cancer received a diagnosis and 50% of those who were diagnosed die because their diagnosis came too late. WHY? Because a major success factor for surviving childhood cancer is early diagnosis and many of our health practitioners are unaware of the signs.

Because of this depressingly low success rate for diagnosis and treatment of childhood cancer, CHOC (Childhood Cancer Foundation South Africa), in conjunction with paediatric oncologists, developed an easy to remember six-point early warning system. This system is for parents, teachers, nurses, traditional health practitioners, GPs, paediatricians, anyone really to spot the early warning signs of childhood cancer.

I was lucky enough to attend a workshop run by CHOC. The workshop was facilitated by Mama Brenda a member of the CHOC team and nursing sister. Brenda works in the Paediatric Oncology Centre at Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital.

So what were the three most important things I learnt?

1. You know your child best, look for the signs

You spend the most time with your child, therefore you are best positioned to notice the small things: a lump, a persistent rash, a weird looking spot in the eye, one too many nose bleeds, a change in personality, unexplained bruises or a loss of weight or appetite.

CHOC has created the acronym St. SILUAN to help people remember the six key early warning signs of childhood cancer.

CHOC’s St. Siluan Early Warning Signs of Childhood Cancer

Obviously, kids can be weird, they get bruises, nose bleeds, they throw tantrums, they don’t always want to eat. But as parents, we know more or less what is the norm for our child.

The keywords to remember are:

  • Unexplained: No reasonable explanation for why your child is acting the way they are or have the problem they have. If multiple bruises pop up over night without any obvious explanation. Or if your child’s eye has changed colour or has weird white spots where there were none before.
  • Persistent:If your child is having blood noses constantly, or not eating constantly, or losing weight constantly, or keeps loosing their balance then these things are no longer random, they have now become patterns and patterns require further investigation.

On a side note, children should not get backache or headaches, generally speaking, if your child is complaining of these persistently you should seek medical help.

2. Don’t take “no” for an answer, demand answers if your gut says something is wrong 

Do not underestimate the power of a parent’s instinct. If you feel your child’s symptoms are being overlooked or not taken seriously, do not put your tail between your legs and let it go. If the doctor or nurse or traditional healer gives a diagnosis and treatment but the symptoms do not go away on completion of the treatment go back.

And make sure you go back to THE SAME clinic or doctor. If you keep going to a new person each time, you will only ever get the first base answer, a health practitioner will need to see a pattern to escalate their thinking and recommendations. 

When a doctor examines your child, be assertive, ensure they physically assess your child from head to toe, do not let them prescribe some Panado based on your verbal account of your child’s symptoms. 

3. Private health care is not always best

One of the biggest things Mama Brenda schooled my privileged ass on was the fact that when it comes to childhood cancer, do not think private health care.

If your child has cancer, the best place for your child is at one of the government teaching hospitals associated with CHOC:

  • The Red Cross Children’s Hospital, Groote Schuur and Tygerberg hospitals in the Western Cape
  • Steve Biko, George Mukhari, Unitas, Little Company of Mary, Charlotte Maxeke (Joburg Gen) and Chris Hani Baragwanath hospitals in Gauteng and Northern regions
  • Greys Hospital and Inkosi Albert Luthuli Central Hospital in KwaZulu-Natal
  • Universitas Hospital in the Free State
  • Frere Hospital and Dora Nginza Hospital in the Eastern Cape

The reason for this is that these hospitals are the hospitals that have centres for excellence in paediatric oncology. Their departments are staffed by some of the best and most experienced doctors and nurses when it comes to diagnosing, treating and caring for children with cancer.

These departments are made up of multi-disciplinary professionals who approach treatment from a holistic point of view. And this holistic view includes the families of the children in their care. In these hospitals, you will find not only the best care but the support structures needed to survive the often long road ahead when your child is diagnosed with cancer.

Ultimately this is CHOCs purpose – to provide care and support for children with cancer, and their families as well as, to support specialist treatment centres.


To support CHOC’s cause click here.

Or text the word CHOC to 37261 to donate R10 a week to CHOC (Your pledge will continue to run until you elect to opt-out. Network and admin fees apply.)

This article originally appeared on Parenty on 9th October 2019.

Leave a Reply