In Australia, more than 1000 children and adolescents are diagnosed with cancer every year. Worldwide, a child is diagnosed with cancer every 2 minutes.
Childhood cancer kills more children in Australia than any other disease. Every week, we are losing three precious young lives. And when a child dies, an average 70 potential years of life are lost.
Childhood cancer is different to adult cancer
Childhood cancer is not simply adult cancer in a child. Childhood cancer has different causes to adult cancer, occurs in different forms, and often responds differently to and needs different kinds of treatment.
Common types of childhood cancer
There are many different types of cancer that children can get. Some of the cancer types that the Zero Childhood Cancer Program is focusing on include:
Brain cancer causes more deaths in children than any other type of cancer. Two of the most common brain tumours in children are medulloblastoma and glioma. The most common high-grade glioma is diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma (DIPG). DIPG is the deadliest of all childhood cancers, with no effective treatments and no cure.
Leukaemia is the most common cancer in children. Leukaemia does not form a solid tumour − it is a cancer of the blood and bone marrow, causing large numbers of abnormal white blood cells to accumulate and circulate in the body.
Neuroblastoma is the most common solid tumour in early childhood, with an average age of diagnosis of two years. Unfortunately, most children present with advanced disease that responds poorly to treatment.
Sarcoma is a cancer that grows in bone, as well as soft tissues like muscle and connective tissue such as tendons and cartilage. Sarcomas are among the more common types of solid tumour in children, and often grow quite aggressively, making them difficult to treat.
Cure is not enough
In Australia, an estimated one in 900 young adults aged between 16 and 45 years is a survivor of childhood cancer. While more children are surviving childhood cancer than in the past, unfortunately most go on to develop one or more life-altering chronic health conditions. These include infertility, neurocognitive deficits, short stature, hearing loss, vision loss and second cancers.
Health problems that develop as a result of childhood cancer and its treatment often only become evident over time as the child grows, matures and ages. This is why the Zero Childhood Cancer Program is so important − we desperately need treatments that not only improve survival, but also improve quality of life for survivors.
Each year, more than 1000 children and adolescents in Australia are diagnosed with cancer. Worldwide, about 300,000 new cases of childhood cancer are diagnosed.
The incidence of childhood cancer in general is higher in boys, and almost half of all childhood cancers are diagnosed in children aged 0–4.
About three children and adolescents die from cancer every week in Australia, with brain cancer killing more children than any other cancer type.
Prior to the 1960s, cancer was nearly always a death sentence for a child. Today, more than eight out of 10 children survive. However, while the overall survival rate for childhood cancer is now over 80 per cent, for some types of cancer the survival rate is much lower.
Childhood cancer does not discriminate; it can affect any child from any socioeconomic or cultural background. Unlike when an adult gets cancer, when a child gets cancer there is usually no known cause – it is not associated with lifestyle factors, and nothing can be done to prevent it. About half of all childhood cancers are thought to begin in the womb.
Thanks to medical research, the overall survival rate for childhood cancer has dramatically improved over the years. And it is medical research that provides hope to the hundreds of thousands of children worldwide who are diagnosed with cancer each year.
The success of the Zero Childhood Cancer Program (ZERO) rests on recognising that because every child is unique and every cancer is different, treatment needs to be tailored to each individual. Further, ZERO acknowledges that childhood cancer is different to adult cancer and therefore requires more extensive testing. ZERO is the only program in Australia with the combined expertise needed to deliver the comprehensive testing platform required.
Over the past five years, ZERO has achieved unprecedented clinical outcomes, representing a paradigm shift in the way children with cancer are cared for in this country. We believe this pioneering program holds the key to improving survival in children with cancer, as well as giving survivors the best possible quality of life.
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