Why it's never too early to teach schoolchildren about cancer
As the Eve Appeal launches a new campaign, the charity tells Lisa Salmon about the important stuff kids should know
Cancer, unfortunately, is something many people experience either first-hand or because they know someone who is diagnosed with it. Despite it being a major factor in many people's lives, very little is taught about it in schools.
However, research by the gynaecological cancer awareness charity The Eve Appeal has found that two thirds of parents think children should be taught about the signs and symptoms of cancer at school, with 83% saying it's important for children to learn about illnesses and diseases which may affect them in the future.
As a result, and to mark September's Gynaecological Cancer Awareness Month, The Eve Appeal has launched its Put Cancer on the Curriculum campaign, calling for the Government's new draft guidance on relationships and health education to include education on cancer, along with enhanced anatomical body knowledge.
Athena Lamnisos, chief executive of The Eve Appeal, says the charity wants to see specific subjects relevant to cancers included in the curriculum in an age-appropriate way, to help with early diagnosis and cancer prevention.
"We want the next generation of children to be armed with knowledge that can help save lives. A child's relationship with their body is the longest one they will have, and we want schools to teach them how to respect and understand it.
"We know early diagnosis is imperative to a better outcome for patients - especially with gynae cancers - and preventing cancer is what we, and parents, all want to see."
The charity is recommending that basic body knowledge is included in the curriculum from the age of seven, and that cancer screening, prevention, and signs and symptoms education begin at the age of 10.
GP Dr Bella Smith says: "If we can talk to children openly, honestly and without embarrassment, they can learn what's normal in their development and in their health.
"This teaches them to take responsibility for their own health and to be in control of their bodies. We don't need to scare them - the more aware of their health they are, and the more they are comfortable discussing their health, the more likely they will be able to detect an abnormality early."
Here are five things The Eve Appeal says children should know about cancer.
1. Cancer doesn't discriminate
Everybody can get cancer at some stage in their lives, and it may affect those who are closest to us, like family members or friends.
Lamnisos says: "Perhaps you think they're too young to be affected. Sadly, cancer doesn't care about age, race, or sexual orientation."
2. Sometimes the cause of cancer is known
Although doctors often don't know why people develop cancer, in some cases the cause is known, says Lamnisos. For example with cervical cancer (neck of the womb), there are a group of viruses that can be passed on during sex that can sometimes start a cancer developing on the skin of the cervix.
"The good news is we can get protected against it, using the HPV vaccine," she adds.
The vaccine is offered at school to girls aged 12 to 13 years old in year eight. The second dose of the vaccine is normally offered six to 12 months after the first (in school year eight or year nine), and it's important to have both doses to be protected. Boys aged 12 to 13 will be offered the HPV vaccine at some stage in the near future.
3. Cancer doesn't always kill
Treatment has improved, meaning more people have a better chance of surviving cancer. Cancer Research UK says 50% of people diagnosed in England and Wales survive cancer for 10 years or more, and the UK survival rate has doubled in the last 40 years.
"Knowledge is power," stresses Lamnisos. "We can help doctors by ensuring that we're all aware of our bodies, knowing what's normal and therefore what's not normal for our bodies. This allows doctors to detect symptoms sooner, and the earlier they're detected, the more likely they're able to diagnose the cancer and treat it more effectively."
4. Cancer could be in your genes
Certain genes can make it more likely that carriers develop cancer.
A good example is the BRCA gene mutation, which predisposes high-risk women to both ovarian and breast cancer.
Hollywood star Angelina Jolie had both her breasts removed after discovering she carried a defective BRCA1 gene. Two years later, she had her ovaries removed as well. The star's mother, grandmother and great-grandmother all died of ovarian cancer.
NHS England is just completing the 100,000 Genomes Project, which will give us even more knowledge about cancers that may run in families.
"We're learning more about our genes and DNA make-up and what makes us who we are," says Lamnisos. "If we know we carry a gene mutation that may increase our risk of developing a cancer, there are then steps we can take to do something about it."
5. You can reduce your risk of cancer
There are steps you can take to reduce the chances of developing cancer, including:
Not smoking, which can reduce your risk of lung and other cancers.
Avoiding too much ultraviolet radiation from the sun or sunbeds, as it's the main cause of skin cancer. When the sun is strong, spend time in the shade, cover up and use sunscreen with at least SPF 15.
Not drinking alcohol excessively, which can reduce your risk of breast, colon, prostate and other cancers.
Having the HPV vaccine, which can reduce your risk of both cervical and vulval cancer.
Eating a healthy, well-balanced diet, which can help reduce your risk of many cancers including womb and colon cancer.
Always attending health screenings such as smear tests when they're offered to you as an adult.
Smear tests can help prevent cervical cancer.
Keeping active - exercise can help reduce the risk of cancer, particularly bowel, breast and womb cancer.
For more information on the Cancer on the Curriculum campaign, visit www.eveappeal.org.uk. To learn more about the NHS's 100,000 Genomes Project, visit www.genomicsengland.co.uk/the-100000-genomes-project