Children with cancer need better care, experts say

Doctors tell congress that counselling and support are essential to caring for youngsters suffering from cancer.

Dubai, 29th February 2012. Maha Ali ( an 8 years old Emirati and a cancer patient ) speaks during the event, as Dr Ziad Al Najjar ( Dubai Health Authority ) and Ms Heba Al Shaar ( Dubai Health Authority ) looks on at the Arab Children Health Congress 2012. ( Jeffrey E Biteng / The National )Cancer sufferer Maha, 8, takes the chance to thank those who have helped with her battle yesterday, as Dr Ziad Al Najjar and Heba Al Shaar, both from the Dubai Health Authority, look on.
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The Middle East needs to focus on palliative care and better counselling for children with cancer, doctors say.

"No children should die without their dignity," said Dr Samar Muwakkit Balaa, the acting director of the Children's Cancer Centre of Lebanon at the American University of Beirut Medical Centre.

"If they are going to die they need to be in a hospice. We can start doing this today."

Dr Balaa was speaking in Dubai at the fifth Arab Child Health Congress on the gaps and strengths in the Middle East's ability to treat childhood cancers.

A relatively rare disease, some of the most common forms are leukaemias and cancers of the brain.

About 60 per cent of the 4,941 cases diagnosed in the UAE between 1983 and 2002 were leukaemia or lymphoma.

Dr Sawsan Al Mahdi, the secretary general of Friends of Cancer Patients, a Sharjah charity created in 1999, said while the treatment of childhood cancers was improving, the way children were cared for after diagnosis needed attention.

"How do you tell your child they have cancer?" Dr Al Mahdi asked. "Sometimes we see parents who come to the charity who have not told their kids. The children then wonder why they are not at school.

"The problem is, parents don't know how to tell their children."

Parents must also understand that children are "more resilient" than they think, said Dr Al Mahdi.

Mahasin Abdulla of Dubai discovered that after her daughter, Maha, was diagnosed with a rare form of leukaemia almost eight months ago.

"As any mother would say, I found it very difficult," said Mrs Abdulla, an Emirati. "It was hard to adjust to what was happening and to accept it was a reality.

"I had to look strong so I could support my daughter but then I found that the greatest support I got was from her."

Maha, whose cancer is kept at bay by a daily dose of tablets, spoke briefly at the conference to give her thanks to those who had helped her.

Dr Al Mahdi also recommended people be taught the difference between counselling and health education.

"It would be a good thing to be taught at school," said Hanna Emia, 16, a pupil at United International Private School in Dubai who attended the first day of the conference with several classmates.

"This conference teaches you about having a positive attitude towards cancer and to be open-minded about it. We are healthy just now, but what would happen if we were diagnosed?"

Education would help children and their parents know how to react if someone in their family had cancer, Hanna said.

While some doctors believe the prevalence of childhood cancer in the UAE is lower than in some parts of the West, the World Health Organisation has warned the level is set to increase, said Dr Abdulrahman Al Jassmi, a consultant paediatrician at Dubai Hospital.

"We have had a warning that this rate is going to increase slowly," said the doctor, who saw 60 new cases at the hospital last year.