When five-year-old Swara (name changed) was diagnosed with cancer, her family moved to a rented apartment in Pune from Baramati for treatment. Her father had spent all his savings on her medical exams and travel. She weighed less than what she should have been at her age and used only 23% of her energy needs. She also experienced the side effects of chemotherapy, including loss of appetite.
In India, about 50,000 children like Swara are diagnosed with cancer each year, which is about one child every 11 minutes. Unfortunately, childhood cancer cannot be prevented or detected through regular screening, but generic drugs and therapy, including chemotherapy and radiation, can cure most childhood cancers. Yet in low- and middle-income countries, such as India, only 15-45% of children are cured of cancer, compared to more than 80% in high-income countries. The critical reasons for the huge difference are many, including delayed diagnosis and inaccessibility of holistic and supportive care.
Another major hurdle that children with cancer face is the lack of access to proper nutrition. About 40% are malnourished at the time of diagnosis. As a result, these children are at greater risk of infection, side effects, complications and delays in treatment. The causes of malnutrition in children with cancer are multifactorial and dynamic in nature. The side effects of the treatment, complex metabolic disorders and changes in the inflammatory and hormonal system cause changes in the body. These effects are often exacerbated by poor appetite, vomiting and nausea which hinder adequate food intake and further compromise nutritional status. All these factors lead to a loss of fat tissue and muscle mass, resulting in malnutrition.
Beating childhood cancer starts with eating right.
Nutrition plays an undeniably critical role in the body’s ability to fight cancer and can often be the difference between life and death. Currently, the net five-year survival rate for childhood cancer in India is 30-40%. However, the survival rate with holistic treatment, including nutrition, is up to 70%. Good nutrition during cancer treatment reduces side effects and treatment complications, leads to fewer interruptions or delays in treatment, improves survival rates and improves immunity against infection.
In 2020-2021, Cuddles Foundation, an organization that conducts a nutrition program for children with cancer, assessed the state of childhood cancer in India and analyzed the impact of good nutrition. The report highlights the critical role nutrition plays in bringing children battling cancer closer to a cure. Some of the key findings from the report include:
The top 4 most common childhood cancers:
Acute lymphoblastic leukemiaPrecursor B-lymphoblastic leukemiaB-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemiaAcute myeloid leukemia
34% of girls were diagnosed against 66% of boys.
This seems to resonate with the ratio between boys and girls diagnosed with cancer in India. This gender inequality is particularly prevalent in poorer countries where girls are less likely than boys to be referred to a doctor when they become ill.
80% of caregivers don’t know the right foods to feed their child when they are first diagnosed with cancer.
Since a large majority of the foundation’s beneficiaries earn less than ₹10,000 a month, providing nutritional assistance is essential. On average, the nutritional programs add ₹3,200 as savings to the caregiver’s income per month.
Impact of nutrition on children with cancer
Despite cancer therapy such as chemotherapy and radiation, 80% of patients improved or maintained their nutritional status. Also, 94% of the patients advised returned for a second visit or continued treatment. Mean BMI z-score between the first and last visit improved by 16%, indicating an overall improvement in health
This report highlights the urgent need for proper nutrition for children battling cancer in India in light of the prevailing rates of malnutrition and the side effects caused by the treatment. Several studies indicate that children have a lower risk of infections, less delay in treatment, fewer side effects and faster recovery with adequate nutrition. and food aid at pediatric cancer hospitals across the country.
The research can be found here
(The study was written by the Hug Foundation)