Childhood cancer treatment facts

Childhood cancer treatment facts

Is childhood cancer curable?

What are the chances of childhood cancer?

What percentage of childhood cancer is cured?

What is the most common age for childhood cancer?

Childhood cancer treatment facts

Treatment for childhood cancer is based mainly on the type and stage (extent) of the cancer. The main types of treatment used for childhood cancer are:

  • surgery: removing cancerous cells or tumors
  • chemotherapy: using medical drugs to kill cancer cells
  • radiation therapy: using radiant energy to kill cancer cells
  • bone marrow (stem cell) transplant: putting healthy stem cells into the bloodstream so they can make healthy new blood, bone marrow, and immune system cells

How are childhood cancers treated? What percentage of childhood cancers are cured? Can childhood cancer be cured?

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.) Children’s bodies are also generally better able to recover from higher doses of chemotherapy than are adults’ bodies. Using more intensive treatments gives doctors a better chance of treating the cancer effectively, but it can also lead to more short- and long-term side effects. Unlike chemotherapy, 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. Doctors do their best to balance the need for intensive treatment with the desire to limit side effects as much as possible.

Doctors may use one or more of these treatments for a child who has cancer. The type of treatment needed depends on the child’s age, the type of cancer, and how severe the cancer is.

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Signs of Childhood Cancer

-Continued, unexplained weight loss
-Headaches, often with early morning vomiting
-Increased swelling or persistent pain in bones, joints, back, or legs
-Lump or mass, especially in the abdomen, neck, chest, pelvis, or armpits
-Development of excessive bruising, bleeding, or rash
-Constant infections
-A whitish color behind the pupil
-Nausea which persists or vomiting without nausea
-Constant tiredness or noticeable paleness
-Eye or vision changes which occur suddenly and persist
-Recurrent or persistent fevers of unknown origin

Is childhood cancer curable?

Most childhood cancers are very treatable. Approximately 80% if children diagnosed with cancer will survive and grow into adulthood. Survival rates are increasing due to major treatment advances in recent decades. The treatment is expensive but in terms of cost per life year saved, compares very favourably with other major health interventions. The rate of improvement in survival is slowing down. In the last 40 years, the overall survival rate for children’s cancer has increased from 10% to nearly 90% today, but for many more rare childhood cancers, the survival rate is much less. 12% of children who are diagnosed with cancer do not survive. Because it is generally not possible to prevent cancer in children, the most effective strategy to reduce the burden of cancer in children is to focus on a prompt, correct diagnosis followed by effective therapy.

When identified early, cancer is more likely to respond to effective treatment and result in a greater probability of survival, less suffering, and often less expensive and less intensive treatment. Significant improvements can be made in the lives of children with cancer by detecting cancer early and avoiding delays in care. A correct diagnosis is essential to treat children with cancer because each cancer requires a specific treatment regimen that may include surgery, radiotherapy, and chemotherapy.

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Risks and causes of cancer in children

Parents of children with cancer can sometimes feel like something they did, or didn’t do, caused their child’s cancer. We don’t know what causes, or how to prevent most childhood cancers and no one should feel blamed.

Although we have identified a number of lifestyle changes that can help to reduce the risk of adults developing cancer, it doesn’t look like there is anything we can do to prevent most childhood cancers.

Cancer is not infectious. You can’t catch it from another person and your child can’t pass it on to their siblings or other children in their school. It is unlikely for 2 children in one family to be diagnosed with childhood cancer.

Risk factors for children’s cancers are not well understood. This is because this group of cancers are relatively rare and there are lots of different types. This makes them difficult for researchers to study. But we know there are some factors that can increase the risk. While the factors listed below are linked to children’s cancers, most children with cancer aren’t affected by any of them. And many children who are affected by these risk factors won’t go on to develop cancer.

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Known risk factors

These include:

  • medical conditions
  • problems with development in the womb
  • exposure to infections
  • exposure to radiation
  • previous cancer treatments

Medical conditions

Certain conditions can increase a child’s risk of developing some types of cancers.

For example, children with Down’s syndrome are 10 to 20 times more likely to get leukaemia than other children. Leukaemia is still very rare, even in children with Down’s syndrome.


Retinoblastoma is a rare type of eye cancer. Some children are born with a change (mutation) in the retinoblastoma gene, also known as the RB1 gene. This may be because they inherited the gene from one of their parents, or because a change happened to this gene during the very early stages of their development in the womb. Most children who have a change to the RB1 gene develop retinoblastoma. About 4 out of 10 children diagnosed (40%) have this inheritable type of retinoblastoma, which often affects both eyes.

Some other childhood cancers, such as Wilms’ tumour, may have a genetic link, but the link isn’t as clear as with retinoblastoma.

Problems with development in the womb

Some childhood cancers such as Wilm’s tumours (kidney cancer in children) and retinoblastomas (eye cancer in children) begin when the baby is still inside their mother.

When a baby is growing in the womb, many parts of the body, such as the kidneys and eyes, develop very early on. Sometimes something goes wrong and some of the cells that should have turned into mature cells to form a part of the body don’t. Instead they remain as very immature cells.

Usually, these immature cells don’t cause any problems and mature by themselves by the time the child is 3 or 4. But if they don’t, they may begin to grow out of control and develop into a cancerous tumour.

Exposure to infections

Epstein Barr virus (EBV) is a common infection in young children. It usually causes no symptoms. But, it can cause glandular fever (infectious mononucleosis) in teenagers and young adults. While glandular fever can be very unpleasant, it usually passes within a few weeks and it doesn’t mean that you go on to develop cancer. Once infected, a person remains a carrier of EBV for life, but the virus normally doesn’t cause any symptoms at all.

In rare cases, infection with EBV can contribute to the development of cancers such as Hodgkin lymphoma and Burkitt’s lymphoma.

Most people get infected with EBV as a child and stay infected for life without ever experiencing any symptoms. Because of how common it is, there is nothing you can do to prevent you, or your child, coming into contact with EBV at the moment.

Exposure to radiation

Radiotherapy is used as a treatment for cancer. It uses a type of radiation called ionising radiation. Children who have radiotherapy for cancer have a slightly greater risk of developing another type of cancer later on. But the risk is small compared to the risk to their health if the original cancer had not been treated with radiotherapy.

Radon gas is a natural radioactive gas and it is a type of ionising radiation. Radon gas is found in the air at a low level outdoors, but it can sometimes build up to high concentrations indoors. Because it is a natural gas, it is difficult or us to control our exposure to it. Overall, studies so far have only suggested that there might be a weak link between indoor levels of radon gas and risk of childhood leukaemia.

Previous cancer treatments

Past treatment with chemotherapy can increase the risk of cancers such as acute leukaemia many years later in children and adults.

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What are the chances of childhood cancer?

Chances are that your child will not get cancer: the odds of your child developing cancer by the age of 19 is approximately 1 in 330. But, cancer is second only to accidents as a cause of death in children.

And, just as you put your child in a car seat or a seat belt each time you get into the car, just as you teach your child to play safely, just as you watch your young child constantly so that he or she does not get hurt, so you also need to watch for signs of childhood cancer.

Childhood cancers progress rapidly. A quick diagnosis greatly enhances the chance that the child will survive cancer to live a long life. Treated properly, the majority of children diagnosed with cancer are cured.

As a parent, you need to be aware of the symptoms of childhood cancer. Your pediatrician is probably a very good doctor, but pediatricians are busy, they do not know your child as well as you do, and they may never have diagnosed childhood cancer. You need to know to trust your own intuition when you feel that there is really something wrong with your child, even if the doctor initially interprets the symptoms as a common child ailment. Your doctor may be right, but you need to make sure that certain tests are performed to rule out cancer.

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What percentage of childhood cancer is cured?

Childhood cancer rates have been rising slightly for the past few decades.

Because of major treatment advances in recent decades, 84% of children with cancer now survive 5 years or more. Overall, this is a huge increase since the mid-1970s, when the 5-year survival rate was about 58%. Still, survival rates can vary a great deal depending on the type of cancer and other factors. The survival rates for a specific type of childhood cancer can be found in our information for that cancer type.

After accidents, cancer is the second leading cause of death in children ages 1 to 14. About 1,190 children under the age of 15 are expected to die from cancer in 2020.

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What is the most common age for childhood cancer?

The average age of a child diagnosed with cancer is 6.
But you don’t have to be a child to be diagnosed with childhood cancer. Childhood cancers are diagnosed in all ages, from newborn infants to children and young adults. The most common childhood cancer, Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia accounts for about 34 percent of all cancers in children. ALL typically occurs between the ages of 2 and 4, and is more common in males than females. Leukemia begins in bone marrow and spreads to the blood, and can then spread to the organs.

Common childhood cancers

More than 15,000 children are diagnosed with cancer every year. Certain types of cancer are more common among children, including:

  • Leukemia (blood cancer): the most common childhood cancer, affecting about 30% of children with cancer
  • Brain and nervous system cancers
  • Lymphoma (lymph system cancers)
  • Other types of tumors, such as Wilms’ tumors (kidney cancer), neuroblastoma or osteosarcoma (bone cancer)

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