The war against childhood cancer: Who’s winning?

Every day, the terrifying reality of a cancer diagnosis changes a child’s life. But as technology and treatments improve, many more children could be able to call themselves survivors.

The American Cancer Society estimates that 10,590 children under the age of 14 will be diagnosed with some form of cancer in 2018, excluding borderline/benign brain tumors. Of those, the ACS estimates 1,180 will die from the disease.

Over the past few decades, the number of children who were diagnosed with cancer has gone up, but so has the number of survivors.

In 1975, more than 13 of every 100,000 children and teens age zero to 19 were diagnosed with cancer and 5.1 of 100,000 died. In 2015, the incidence rate was 19.2 out of 100,000, but the mortality rate was 2.3 out of 100,000.

Rebecca Siegel, lead author of the annual Cancer Facts & Figures report at the American Cancer Society, said that the reductions in death rates were the result of years of research which has led to changes in how doctors treat their patients.

“The declines in mortality are driven by improvement in treatment which have been rapid, particularly for leukemia which represents almost a third of childhood cancers,” she said.

The most common childhood cancer

Leukemia accounts for roughly 30% of all cancers in children. Siegel emphasized that research has helped to develop better treatments, allowing practitioners more options when treating childhood cancers, but there is still a lot to learn about what causes a child to develop cancer.

“We really don’t know much at all about what causes these cancers,” she said. “We’ve had a great impact on mortality because of improvements in treatment and hopefully that will continue but I think there is room for improvement in understanding the etiology of these cancers and trying to prevent their occurrence.”

While there has been success with leukemia and other common types of cancer, researchers hope for more advances in understanding rare forms of the disease.

“There has not been as much progress for some of the more rare childhood cancers but they’re harder to study because, again, they are rare so it’s more difficult to make progress for cancers that aren’t affecting very many kids,” Siegel said.

To parents who have a child who is battling cancer, Siegel suggests they seek out specialty treatment centers that offer comprehensive care. She also added that, “we always recommend that parents try to get their children involved in a clinical trial because that’s part of the reason there’s been such great progress with treatments.”

Today, more than 80% of children survive beyond five years, a significant improvement when compared to survival rates around 60% in the 1970s.

“A childhood cancer diagnosis used to be a death sentence,” Siegel said, “but that just isn’t the case anymore.”