Each year, the parents of approximately 15,700 kids will hear the words “your child has cancer.”
This disease is the number one cause of death by disease in children and occurs cross all ages and ethnic groups. Despite this, childhood cancer research is vastly and consistently underfunded.
Despite major advances – from an overall survival rate of 10 percent just fifty years ago to nearly 90 percent today, for many rare cancers, the survival rate is much lower. Childhood cancer is not just one disease but made up of 12 major types with over 100 subtypes, so although some types of cancer have a 97% survival rate (Hodgkin Lymphoma) others have a survival rate of less than 1% (DIPG). The number of diagnosed cases annually has continued to increase over the past 20 years. Sources: American Cancer Society
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What Causes Cancer in Children?
The causes of childhood cancer are not completely understood. While adult cancers are often linked to lifestyle or environmental factors, cancer in children is different in several ways.
Childhood cancers often occur or begin in the stem cells, which are simple cells capable of producing other types of specialized cells that the body needs. A sporadic (occurs by chance) cell change or mutation is usually what causes childhood cancer. In adults, the type of cell that becomes cancerous is usually an “epithelial” cell, which are cells that line the body cavity and cover the body surface. Cancer occurs from environmental exposures to these cells over time. Adult cancers are sometimes referred to as “acquired” for this reason.
Learning what genetic changes caused a cancer can help doctors diagnose it more effectively. Going forward, this information may also help scientists develop better treatments.
Treating Cancer in Children
Treatment depends on the type of cancer and the stage (extent) of the cancer. Treatments can include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy or immunotherapy. Some types of childhood cancers might be treated with high-dose chemotherapy followed by a stem cell transplant. Newer types of treatment, such as targeted therapy drugs and immunotherapy, have also shown promise in treating some childhood cancers. Often more than one type of treatment is used.
There are exceptions, but childhood cancers usually respond well to chemotherapy because they tend to be cancers that grow fast. (Most forms of chemotherapy affect cells that are growing quickly.) Using intensive treatments like chemotherapy gives doctors a better chance of treating the cancer effectively, but it can also lead to more short- and long-term side effects. Radiation can often cause more serious side effects in children (especially very young children) than in adults, so its use sometimes needs to be limited.
The cancer treatment team
Children with cancer and their families have special needs that can best be met at centers that focus on children. Such centers are coordinated by a team of experts who know the differences between adult and childhood cancers, as well as the unique needs of children with cancer and their families. This team usually includes:
- Pediatric oncologists: doctors who specialize in using medicines to treat children with cancer
- Pediatric surgeons: doctors who specialize in performing surgery in children
- Radiation oncologists: doctors who specialize in using radiation to treat cancer
- Pediatric oncology nurses: nurses who specialize in caring for children with cancer
- Nurse practitioners (NPs) and physician assistants (PAs): nurses and other professionals who are specially trained and licensed to practice medicine alongside doctors.
The team can also include many professionals other than nurses and doctors. Children’s cancer centers have psychologists, social workers, child life specialists, nutritionists, rehabilitation and physical therapists, and educators who can support and care for the entire family.