Childhood cancers are more curable, but also rising

August 31, 2013 | by

Pediatric cancers are more curable than ever, with the five-year survival rate for children diagnosed with cancer estimated at more than 80 percent. That’s a huge increase from the 1970s, when the five-year survival rate was less than 60 percent.

September is National Childhood Cancer Awareness Month.

September is National Childhood Cancer Awareness Month.

"There has been a continuous improvement in outcome of treatment for childhood cancer over the last few decades," said Joseph Rosenthal, M.D., the Barron Hilton Chair in Pediatrics at City of Hope. "At this time, a cure is a feasible goal for the majority of children diagnosed with cancer."

But, inexplicably, diagnosis rates are rising.

Over the past 20 years, the incidence of children being diagnosed with all forms of invasive cancer has been rising at a consistent rate, according to the National Cancer Institute. In 1975, the rate of cancer in children was 11.5 cases per 100,000 children. In 2004, the rate increased to 14.8 cases per 100,000 children.

Further, the increase also means that more children than ever are coping with long-term complications caused by their disease and its treatment.

Now researchers are trying to understand the rise in diagnoses even as they work to improve the odds for children who are diagnosed. They’re also giving those life-altering aftereffects the attention they deserve.

To bring awareness to these challenges, September has been deemed National Childhood Cancer Awareness Month.

The major types of childhood cancers are leukemia, and brain and other central nervous system tumors; together, these account for more than half of new cases. Other common types include neuroblastoma, Wilms tumor, lymphoma, rhabdomyosarcoma, retinoblastoma and bone cancer. Additional types of cancers can occur in children, but are rare.

Rosenthal notes that although most childhood cancers are curable, the treatment may come at a cost of quality of life in later years. Survivors of childhood cancer can acquire secondary cancers as well as problems with growth, learning, hearing, vision, the heart, lung, thyroid gland, reproductive system, digestive tract, kidneys, and bones and joints as a result from the treatment they received.

“For patients surviving childhood cancer today, we need to continuously monitor and assess potential injuries and damages caused by past therapies,” said Rosenthal. “For the patient for whom we fight to achieve a cure, we need to keep in mind the balance between treatment's outcome and its side effects, particularly the long-term ones.”

Not only is continued research needed to find new ways to minimize the adverse, long-term effects of treatment, but additional cures are needed as well.

"With such extraordinary results in the past, we will, probably, see a slower rate in improvement in the next decade," said Rosenthal. "However, the mission is to continue to fight, fiercely, to find a cure for the 20 percent of children who are not cured today."