How to lower your child's risk of cancer

With World Cancer Day on February 4, take simple steps to protect your little one.

01 February 2019
By Glynis Horning

Childhood cancers are relatively rare and the causes are still largely unknown. Established risk factors include medical conditions such as Down’s syndrome (linked to a greater chance of leukaemia), problems with development in the womb, and exposure to infections or to radiation. There’s not much you can do about these, but there are also lifestyle factors that raise the risk of cancer significantly. Start addressing them now – in what you teach your children and (more powerfully!) in the behaviour you model for them.

Breastfeed your child

If possible, keep breastfeeding for at least nine months to help build your child’s immune system. It can also help protect you from breast cancer, says Professor Michael Herbst, health specialist for the Cancer Association of South Africa (CANSA).

Teach your child to eat right

Obesity is associated with a raised risk for cancer, reports the CANSA. And childhood obesity is on the rise, with 17% of South African children aged between 1 and 9 now overweight. This is attributed mainly to unhealthy eating. 

Provide a diet high in whole foods, vegetables and fruit, and avoid refined cereals, saturated and trans fats, fast foods and sugary drinks (including fruit juice – rather offer whole fruits and water).

Encourage them to exercise

Part of the obesity problem fuelling cancer is the trend to inactivity, linked to the popularity of online and video pursuits from an increasingly young age. “Children should engage in at least 60 minutes a day of moderate to vigorous physical activity, at least five days a week,” says Herbst. Encourage outdoor play and family walks.

Don't smoke

Be a good role model, and don’t allow others to smoke in your home or around your children. Not only does exposure to second-hand smoke raise their risk of cancer, but it’s important to set a positive example, to counter moves by tobacco manufacturers to target young people as the older market declines with growing anti-smoking legislation. 

CANSA reports that tobacco use increases the risk of more than 18 types of cancer, including cancer of the lungs, pelvis, oral cavity, oesophagus, bladder, stomach, breast and ovaries. Hookahs, pipes and snuff are also dangerous, and e-cigarettes have not been scientifically proven to be safe either, Herbst says.

Drink moderately, if at all

Alcohol increases the risk of cancers of the mouth, throat, oesophagus, bowel, liver and breast, and any level of alcohol consumption increases the risk – whether it’s beer, wine or spirits, says Herbst. If you must drink, model sensible behaviour by limiting your intake to no more than one drink.

Teach sun safety

South Africa has the second-highest skin cancer incidence in the world after Australia. Teach children not to play outdoors between 10am and 3pm, and to always wear sunscreen and protective clothing (long sleeves, hats, sunglasses).

Impress on teens that sunbeds and tanning beds are not safe either – the International Agency for Research on Cancer has officially classified them as cancer-causing agents. Even sunless self-tanning products such as sprays and mousses are not generally advisable. For example, Melanotan 11 is reported to have serious side-effects and may induce melanoma – CANSA warns against it.

Do a monthly family check, examining each other’s backs and tops of heads. See your health provider if you notice bumps or moles that grow, are asymmetrical, have irregular borders, change colour, and are bigger than 6mm.

Ensure they are vaccinated

Infection with the human papillomavirus (HPV) can lead to cervical cancer, and CANSA encourages all girls and young women aged nine to 26 to be vaccinated against it. The Department of Health vaccination programme provides free shots in all public schools for Grade 4 girls aged 9 and 10. 

Other children (including sons) can be vaccinated privately by your health professional or at a pharmacy clinic – no prescription is needed for Cervarix. In boys, it may prevent genital warts and cancer, and the spread of HPV to their future partners. Men can also get anal, penile, mouth and pharynx cancer from HPV infection, says Herbst.

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