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Cancers in Children: What Can You Do to Prevent Them?

By Dr. Krutika Goel in Paediatric (Ped) Oncology

Sep 19 , 2023 | 2 min read

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Cancers in childhood sound like something that you read in the news about but are sure would never happen in your family. Unfortunately, the recent data suggests that cancers in paediatrics are on the rise. Unlike adult cancers, we do not have sure-shot risk factors related to lifestyle in kids; add to that the state of constant pollution (air, water, food) we live in. The statistics are not in our favour.

Cancer is a genetic disease, but the chances of getting cancer are shaped by the environment you live in. So it's not just about if one smoked in their teens. Did their mother smoke? What was the quality of the water that she drank? Was she exposed to toxins in her surroundings, and did she pass them on to her baby through breast milk?

In India, one in nine people is likely to develop cancer in their lifetime. So, what can we do to make sure our little ones are protected from the risk of developing this deadly disease?

When You Are Pregnant

DONT'S

  1. Coffee: An increased risk of acute leukaemia was found in children whose mother's coffee intake was more than two cups per day compared to no consumption at all.
  2. Excessive consumption of smoked/ grilled/barbecued foods.
  3. Excessive consumption of deep-fried potato foods.
  4. Vegetable oils (esp. soya, sunflower).
  5. Excessive consumption of fatty meats/fish.
  6. Smoking- Even passive smoking (exposure to smoking by the father and other family members) has a detrimental effect.
  7. Alcohol

DO'S

  1. Fruits: Two or more daily servings were seen to have a protective effect on the offsprings of mothers who consumed them.
  2. Weight Check: Fit mothers had more chances of having fit babies.
  3. Folic Acid: Pre-natal vitamins had a protective effect from developing deadly brain tumours (and acute leukaemias) in newborns of mothers who took them.
  4. Breastfeeding: It is well-documented that breastfeeding reduces the risk of childhood leukaemia by ∼10% overall and by 20% for women breastfeeding 6 months and longer.

Toddlers

  1. Keep them active, encourage physical play and reduce screen time- this helps keep a weight check. Obesity is associated with an increased prevalence of numerous types of cancers in adulthood.
  2. Protect from pesticide exposure: Some pesticides can increase cancer risk by disrupting hormones, damaging DNA and causing inflammation.
  3. Protect them from pollution: 1.2 to 1.5-fold increased risk of childhood leukaemia is associated with various markers of air pollution (eg: benzene, NO2, and proximity to traffic density).
  4. Keep them away from work chemicals: If you work in industries dealing with chemicals/ dyes/ solutions of any form, try to keep your children away from work.
  5. Screen siblings: Children with certain cancers have a high risk of sharing them with their siblings. For example, if you have a child with retinoblastoma (a type of eye cancer) it is highly recommended to screen your other children.
  6. Medical conditions and infections: Children born with certain conditions (Down's syndrome) or some infections (Epstein Barr Virus, HIV) have a higher propensity for developing certain cancers.
  7. Sun protection: Apply sunscreen on your children before they step out.
  8. Protect from radiation: Avoid unnecessary CT scans and X-rays.

Teenagers

  1. Vaccinations: Get your children immunized for HPV (Human Papilloma Virus) and HBV - They are preventable and known causes of cancer.
  2. Tell them about the harmful effects of smoking (active and passive).
  3. Educate them about safe sex practices.
  4. Encourage them to eat balanced meals: Aim for meals comprising 2/3 (or more) fruits, vegetables, whole grains, or beans and 1/3 (or less) animal protein.
  5. Impress upon them the importance of sunscreen.

Despite these measures, it is necessary to understand that many paediatric cancers are still idiopathic. Screening and identifying such signs and symptoms early in your kids is a must.