Warriors in yellow and gold

September is Yellow and Gold Month for childhood cancer awareness and the Cancer Association of Namibia (CAN) has dedicated itself to this fight against cancer.

08 September 2020 | Education

MARISELLE STOFBERG

Across the globe children are fighting against childhood cancer and September is the month dedicated to raising awareness of these warriors.

With a goal to increase awareness and raise funds for those affected by childhood cancer, the American Childhood Cancer Organisation and partners, of whom the Cancer Association of Namibia (CAN) is a network partner, encourages everyone across the globe to ‘Go Gold’ during September in honour and in memory of kids with cancer.

An average of 140 childhood cancer cases are reported per year in Namibia.

“A decade ago, it was only about 80 new cases per year registered. Retinoblastoma (eye cancer) remains a serious challenge, but so does brain tumours and blood cancers,” says Rolf Hansen, the CEO of CAN.

The most common childhood cancers include retinoblastoma, lymphoma, leukaemia and bone cancer.

Hansen says young people can play a pivotal part in building a culture of helping children who have been affected by childhood cancer.

“When we talk in schools about healthcare, about our bodies, and cultivate an understanding of the immune system, how to stay healthy and fit as best possible, we start breaking barriers, stigmas and fears,” he says.

“By understanding that cancer is not contagious, we teach love and understanding. By knowing that while we try our best to prevent cancer, sometimes our bodies and our DNA is just a bit wrongly wired, cancer can occur. It is not very often that children get cancer, but it can happen, and we must be empathetic, understanding and caring,” Hansen adds.

The Children Fighting Cancer (CHICA) Namibia programme is the specialist support programme within the Cancer Association of Namibia that is focused on childhood cancer awareness and education, financial support through the CHICA Fund and accommodation support during treatment via the CHICA House.

The CHICA Interim Home in Windhoek is the only home in place to house children on cancer treatment and their mothers and was established in 2016 through the sale of the “director’s residence” that CAN received as donation in the 1970s.

CHICA Interim Home

When Hansen assumed the position as CEO in May 2015, the residence was offered as part of his remuneration package, as it has been the tradition since the 1970s. He asked that they rather sell that property and utilise the funds, together with money from the Bank Windhoek Cancer Apple Project, to develop an interim home for childhood cancer patients, as there was a great and urgent need at that time.

“We also needed to expand at our House Acacia for adult cancer patients and renovate the old clinic at head office in order to provide a better service to our community. We can now accommodate up to 16 mother-and-child patients in the CHICA House, where we provide three nutritional meals a day, transportation to treatment facilities and provide psychosocial support to especially the parents of these brave little cancer patients – all fully complimentary,” Hansen adds.

“Establishing the home was a highlight, while strengthening the fund itself to support the little patients has been very important. During these challenging times of Covid-19 when expendable income that in effect allows for donations for charities has been severely affected, we are thankful that proper management of our funds via fundraising is ensuring we can look after and support our young brave fighters,” Hansen says.

Support is essential

Some support groups, services and programmes in Namibia to assist children with cancer and their parents include the CHICA Programme of CAN, but also the Quinton Steele-Botes Trust and Cancer Care Fund that plays a pivotal role in supporting families affected by childhood cancers.

“We try collaboratively to assist families. Namibia is very fortunate to now also have a paediatric oncologist, Dr Gesami Steytler, practising at both the Paediatric Oncology Ward (8 West) at Windhoek Central Hospital and for private patients at Namibian Oncology Services,” Hansen says.

In addition to her expertise, Hansen adds that the country also has two guardian angels for kids fight cancer in Namibia: Dr Orlam and Dr Van Wyk at Windhoek Central.

“Namibia is blessed to have these dedicated medical specialists, as many other African countries either do not have paediatric oncologists, or treatment for kids with cancer.”

According to CAN’s website, approximately 300 000 children are diagnosed with cancer worldwide each year. With access to quality care, more than 80% of children with cancer can survive, living full and healthy lives. However, many children in low-income and middle-income countries do not receive or complete care, and, as a result, over 90% of childhood cancer deaths occur in low resource settings.

The paediatric oncology unit at Windhoek Central Hospital is the only state cancer unit for children in Namibia. “NOC has a makeshift unit and when they have a private childhood cancer patient, they set up the room,” Hansen says.

A voice for the voiceless

The complexity of diagnosing childhood forms of cancer remains a challenge and to help the fight, Hansen says that it is important to know the signs and symptoms of childhood cancer.

“A little child cannot self-observe or articulate a medical condition thus we are parents are the voice and reason of our children. It is often infants who cannot speak or show where there is pain that are diagnosed with cancer and parents need to be aware of the signs and symptoms in order to present to the medical officer and help in the process.”

He further says that parents should reach out for emotional support, get the facts and understanding of the disease and to not become a “Dr Google specialist” and make the journey even more difficult.

“Yes, it is your right and duty to ask questions and to understand the disease and treatment and be fully informed of the side-effects and be a pillar for your child. But, also know that you as parents need counselling and support to let off some steam and emotions.”

The saying “try to remain calm” is a bitter expression in such a trying time but children look up to parents for direction and calm.

“When parents stay focused and calm, the child will better embrace the journey. Children are very strong and resilient, and they always continue to amaze me,” Hansen says.

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