What is childhood cancer?
Childhood cancer is not simply adult cancer in a child. Cancers in children are often different in their causes, the way they grow and spread, and how they respond to treatment.
When a child is diagnosed with cancer, there is usually no known cause. This makes it very hard for parents, who are left with unanswered questions about why their child has cancer, and if there was anything they could have done to prevent it.
The challenge of childhood cancer
Childhood cancer poses two major challenges. First: for every ten children diagnosed with cancer, two don’t survive. And second: most children who survive cancer go on to suffer long-term (sometimes life-long) health issues as a result of their treatment.
Many people are surprised to learn that almost all cancer treatments used in children today were actually developed for adults. Most of these treatments, such as chemotherapy or radiotherapy, target all rapidly growing cells (not just cancer cells), and this leads to harsh side-effects, especially in young, growing bodies.
While the overall survival rate for childhood cancer is now over 80%, for some types of cancer the rate is much lower. In fact, there are some childhood cancers for which there are no treatments and which are uniformly fatal.
Of those who do survive, two-thirds will have significant long-term treatment side effects, including organ dysfunction, neurocognitive deficits, impaired fertility, and even secondary cancers.
The need for more effective and safer treatments for children is urgent.
Which cancers do children get?
Some of the most common childhood cancers are:
This is cancer that grows in the brain and is the second most common childhood cancer. It kills more children that any other type of cancer.
This is cancer of the blood and bone marrow, and is the most common childhood cancer.
The most common solid tumour diagnosed in children under five.
A cancer that grows in the bones and connective tissues of the body.
A cancer that develops in the lymphatic system.
- Worldwide, about 300,000 new cases of cancer are diagnosed each year in children and adolescents.
- In Australia, more than 1000 children and adolescents are diagnosed with cancer each year.
- When a child dies from cancer, an average 70 potential years of life are lost.
- Cancer kills more children than any other disease in Australia.
- About three children and adolescents per week die from cancer in Australia.
- Two-thirds of children who survive cancer suffer serious long-term effects.
- The overall survival rate for childhood cancer has now risen to over 80%, thanks to medical research.
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare: https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/cancer/cancer-data-in-australia
Australian Childhood Cancer Registry: https://cancerqld.blob.core.windows.net/content/docs/Childhood-Cancer-in-Australia-1983-2015.pdf
Medical Journal of Australia 2020; 212: 110-111
Journal of the National Cancer Institute 2001; 93: 341
Lancet Oncol 2017; 18: 719–31