In July last year, Alicia and Ronald Gideon’s lives were turned upside down when their son, Reece, was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia.
Leukaemia is one of the five most common cancers found in children in South Africa. The others are lymphoma (tumours that begin in the lymph glands), brain tumours, nephroblastomas (cancer of the kidneys), and soft-tissue sarcomas (tumours that begin in the connective tissue).
September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, and the Childhood Cancer Foundation of South Africa (CHOC) notes that 1 in every 408 children worldwide will be diagnosed with cancer before the age of 15.
According to Choc, acute lymphoblastic leukaemia starts from an immature white blood cell called a lymphoblast. These lymphoblasts continue to multiply rapidly in the bone marrow and then spill into the blood.
It is called “acute” because it usually develops quickly and becomes worse within weeks if not treated. In South Africa, 208 children are diagnosed with this condition annually. It is more common in boys and can affect children at any age but more often in those aged 4 to 7. About 70 to 80% of children can be cured.
Symptoms include anaemia – with fewer red blood cells, the child looks pale and can be tired and breathless; bleeding – low platelets can lead to problems with blood clotting, so the child may bruise easily, have nosebleeds or bleed from the gums; and serious infection – fewer functioning white blood cells makes the body vulnerable to infections, often with high fevers.
Other symptoms can include swollen glands (anywhere in the body), a swollen or distended stomach due to enlargement of the spleen and/or liver, persistent fever, weight loss, and bone or joint pain.
Reece, from Crawford, who was 6 at the time, was weak and wouldn’t eat – two of the signs of childhood cancer. Alicia took him to her general practitioner who couldn’t find anything wrong with Reece, besides a slight heart murmur, and sent him to his paediatrician, who gave him a referral letter for Melomed Tokai hospital.
At the hospital, a full blood test was done, and the results showed abnormal lymphoblasts. Doctors then took a bone-marrow sample, which confirmed that Reece had cancer, and they performed a lumbar puncture to see if it had spread to his brain and spinal cord.
Both Reece and his mother tested positive for Covid-19 at the same time, so Ronald stayed with him in hospital for two weeks.
Reece was transferred to the Rondebosch Oncology Centre, where he underwent chemotherapy from August. In September last year, he was in remission, but he still receives chemo once a month.
During the start of his treatment, Reece lost all of his hair, and that was about the only side effect he had, says Alicia.
“When doctors told me that my son had leukaemia, it didn’t sink in, but when they started to refer to the oncologist it did,“ she says. ”It was a tough time. When he was diagnosed, I tested positive for Covid-19, and I couldn’t be with him, so his dad stayed with him. I didn’t see my son for two weeks, and all I wanted to do was be there for him. He was so sick; I just wanted to see him.“
Her advice to parents is to take careful note of their children at all times, know their characteristics and be alert to any changes.
“You know your child, so you will be able to tell when something is wrong. Take them to the doctor if you notice anything strange, it might save their life.“
Reece had a setback in September last year when he again tested positive for Covid-19. Every time he gets sick he cannot receive chemotherapy and his treatment is delayed. He is set to be cancer-free by November 2023, providing he has no other setbacks. He continues to go for regular lumbar punctures and biopsies as part of his treatment.
A week before his birthday on September 17, Reece was discharged from hospital. He was so happy to see to his mom and sister Angela that he ran down the passage, says Alicia.
“But because his legs were so weak, he fell. He started to cry because he got hurt, but he ran because he was so happy to see us, and we were so happy to see him.”