September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, and unfortunately, some children and families continue to battle this disease. Unlike many cancers in adults, childhood cancer is not linked to lifestyle or environmental factors. Still today, most of the causes of childhood cancers are unknown.
In light of new cancer treatments, the first part of the Childhood Cancer Series will discuss the recent advances that have been made in this field. During this series, Dr. John van Doorninck, a Pediatric Hematologist at Rocky Mountain Hospital for Children, will help answer questions and explain the tremendous treatment advancements that have been made.
What is Childhood Cancer?
There are several types of childhood cancer, but one of the most common is a form of leukemia.
Dr. van Doorninck says that about 30% of childhood cancers are leukemia, 25% are brain and spinal cord tumors, and about 11% are lymphomas, which are cancers of the lymph node.
“In some circumstances, cancer is inherited. That is not the most common reason a child develops cancer,” Dr. van Doorninck says. “Usually, it’s what we call sporadic, which means that it pops up for reasons that we don’t know.”
According to the American Childhood Cancer Organization, one in every 285 children are diagnosed with cancer before their 20th birthday. In the U.S., cancer is the number one cause of death by disease for children, the organization adds.
“I think of elementary schools, and the average enrollment is about 400 to 500 students, and that means that usually at least one or two families in any given elementary school would be battling childhood cancer or be touched by that,” Dr. van Doorninck explains. “So just about every school has a story about somebody who’s being treated.”
Childhood cancer is rare, but these statistics show that even if we’re not related to someone with this disease, it is still in our community, and many families are battling it.
Advancements in Cancer Treatment
Historically, there have been three pillars of cancer treatment: surgical therapy, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy.
“Each of these has seen remarkable developments and advancements, which increase both the efficacy of treatment and minimize side effects,” Dr. van Doorninck says. “Now, with regard to medicines, the technology has really enabled us to develop treatments which are very specific to the cancer.”
Cancer has been primarily depicted as an individual undergoing an invasive treatment, losing their hair, and being hospitalized. Chemotherapy drugs that cause hair loss are still used in the medical field, but new advancements are being used to fight childhood cancer.
“I recently saw a girl who was about eight years old, and we made a diagnosis of CML (Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia). A few decades ago, she would have had to have intensive chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant,” Dr. van Doorninck says. “But because we know that CML has a very specific genetic signature that can be targeted with a certain medicine, all she’s had to do is take a pill every day.”
Dr. van Doorninck’s office received her test results recently, and they cannot detect any leukemia in the eight-year-old’s blood. Not long ago, this young child would have lost her hair, been in the hospital for months, and then would have had bone marrow transplants. Instead, she goes to school every day, takes a pill, and doesn’t lose her hair.
The American Cancer Society states that 85% of children with cancer now survive five years or more with the major treatment advances.
The new advancements are making cancer treatments more bearable for some children and increasing the survival rate in high-income countries. Yet, there are still some cancers that the medical field has not yet been able to cure.
The U.S. is changing childhood cancer statistics, but in low-middle-income countries, the treatment options and survival rates are drastically different. Globally, around 400,000 new cases of cancer are affecting children each year.
“Probably 20 percent of children globally are diagnosed in high-income countries, and the overall survival is about 84 percent,” Dr. van Doorninck says. “But there’s an entire world out there, and the overall survival in low- and middle-income countries may be as low as 30 percent.”
Learn more about why low- to middle-income countries’ survival rates are drastically different from high-income countries and how organizations in the U.S. are trying to change that in the Childhood Cancer Series.