When a child is suffering from cancer, the reactions from its environment are often very strong. ‘This is not good for the child’s development,’ thinks Eveline de Bont, paediatric oncologist at the University Medical Center Groningen (UMCG). She’d much prefer that negative image to disappear. A good start would be better information provision concerning cancer in children, according to the paediatric oncologist.
Although cancer in children is not common – only about 500 instances a year – De Bont has noticed it time and time again: ‘When a child has cancer, the reactions are often much too sombre.’ De Bont thinks that this is very understandable when it’s the child’s parents, but when schools and friends of the patient’s parents also become uncertain, things in her opinion have gone too far. It only adds to the problems of the child and its parents and can cause problems later on in the child’s life. ‘The schools and the people have of course the best of intentions. But a school sometimes says “So seriously ill, that’s terrible! Let the child stay at home from school, we’ll help it catch up next year.” All that does is deny the child its daily routine and thrust it into isolation.’
The consequences are that children fall behind in their development and will lose their playmates now and for the year to come. ‘That is not necessary at all. Naturally the disease will cause lots of problems in the lives of the child and its family, but it won’t make life impossible. Being bald and wearing a catheter in their nose is not nearly as terrible for children as adults often think. They just accept the fact that they get extremely tired. Playing outside is thus no longer an option and some of them find walking difficult too. But although they are no longer as physically fit, otherwise they want to keep up with life as best they can.’ according to De Bont. ‘So: let them go to school and have as much contact as possible with the outside world rather than live in isolation. That’s what the child wants, too’, says De Bont, ‘particularly on the days when it’s feeling better.’
If that is so, why do schools and other people regard childhood cancer as something hopeless? Ignorance, thinks De Bont. ‘The negative image comes mainly because most people think cancer is like when you get it as an adult. Everyone knows that you get lung cancer from smoking, liver cancer from alcohol, etc. So how do children get cancer? It isn’t caused by smoking or drinking but by growth in their normal development. During this process many cells divide. Sometimes this goes wrong and a cancer cell is created. This is why it often happens in the brain and immune system in the blood – they are busy developing. Very few people realise that that’s why children get cancer.’
In addition, most adults link the disease to a high risk of dying. ‘In the past, my colleagues used to be relieved if about 10 percent of their patients survived, but nowadays the success rate is closer to three quarters.’ Five years after treatment, the children have the same chances of contracting cancer again as a healthy person. So treatment definitely helps. This is why De Bont really wants society to accept cancer in children as something like a bypass operation after a heart attack – it’s certainly serious, but not necessarily fatal. ‘That’s the image that should exist for children with cancer.’
With the proper information, a positive image is certainly achievable, says the paediatric oncologist. De Bont thinks that a campaign would be a good idea. ‘If people don’t know much about a disease they become uneasy about it in daily life and a bit reserved, which only makes the isolation around young cancer patients even greater. And that’s exactly what I want to change with good information provision.’
Eveline de Bont studied Medicine at the University of Amsterdam. She worked for several universities during the 1990s, including Harvard in Boston. In 1999 she was awarded a PhD in Medical Sciences by the University of Groningen. De Bont has won several grants as a paediatric oncologist and researcher, including a personal grant for cancer research which runs until 2009. De Bont currently works for the UMCG.
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