What are the Numbers REALLY Saying about Childhood Cancer?
The statistics come out and they seem to be improving, right? There is no doubt that some of the numbers are improving, but there are times when statistics can distort the truth. This is because statistics are only part of the story.
Childhood cancer tends to take the back burner when up against other cancer types because it is not as common as some of the others, but why has it gotten to the point where nearly everyone knows a child who has or had cancer? It is because the instance is on the rise and even this fact throws the numbers out of whack.
Here’s the deal:
Statistics tend to look at the 5-year survival rate for childhood cancer. When they say that 80% of children are surviving, they are only looking at the 5-year survival. If that child dies after the 5 year mark, they are not counted as part of that 80%.
Scratching your head yet?
If you are, it is for a good reason.
The reason why these children are not considered a part of the 80% is because they may not die from the cancer itself within that 5-year window. Instead, they die from the chronic health conditions that their cancer caused. This has created a brand new goal in childhood cancer awareness and that is making the public aware of the long-term effects of the treatments currently used so that something can be done about the chronic conditions that result.
Yes, more children are surviving because the treatments are more or less tailored versions of what adults receive, but this means the treatments are very harsh. The chronic health conditions tend to be the result of these brutal treatments, but the child survived…right?
Right, but how long will the child live with the other conditions? This means the fight isn’t over and a new kind of awareness needs to be had so that new cancer treatments can be created for children without such long-term effects. These kids should be living to old age; not dying as the result of something that simply extended their lives by saving it temporarily.
There are a number of scenarios that a child may face after being cured of childhood cancer:
- Scenario 1: The child lives another 30 years after their diagnosis without long-term health issues
- Scenario 2: The child lives at least 30 years after diagnosis, but with mild to moderate health issues
- Scenario 3: The child lives at least 30 years after diagnosis, but the chronic conditions are life-threatening
- Scenario 4: The child dies 30 years or less after diagnosis due to chronic conditions that were fatal
What types of chronic conditions are these kids experiencing?
They are having hearing, vision, speech, psycho-social, infertility, cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, pulmonary, musculoskeletal, renal, neurological, and endocrine conditions. Some of them develop secondary cancers.
Right now, there are approximately 13,500 children under the age of 20 being diagnosed with cancer each year. It is estimated that 2,700 of those will die within 5 years and 10,800 of them are estimated to survive the 5-year window.
Of these individuals, it is expected that 2,916 of them will survive without any chronic health conditions, while 7,884 of them are expected to experience chronic health conditions, including death.
The estimated number of 5-year survivors that die from chronic health conditions between 6 and 30 years after diagnosis is 1,944. The number that suffers disabling or life-threatening conditions is estimated at 2,592. The number of survivors that are estimated to suffer mild to moderate chronic health issues is 3,348.
These numbers puts childhood cancer into a brand new category and puts it into a different perspective.
The Efficacy of Childhood Cancer Treatment Today
While at times it is touted that there have been huge advances in treating childhood cancer, the strides have not really been all that significant. The main improvement has been in treatment efficacy, but the survivors of childhood cancers are paying very high prices in the way of side effects.
Survivors of childhood cancer may experience the following side effects associated with their treatments:
- Heart damage
- Secondary cancers
- Lung damage
- Chronic hepatitis
- Issues with growth and development
- Alternation of psycho-social impact
- Impaired cognitive abilities
Two-thirds of survivors experience at least one of the above side effects.
In a recent news article in the Lexington Herald-Leader, it was said that major advances have been made over the past four decades. While it is fair to say advances have been made in the past 40 years, the last 20-30 years have not seen much. Two of the main discoveries are as follows:
Children can tolerate more intense treatments than previously thought and childhood tumors can sometimes be more responsive to treatment than adult cancers.
While there are some cancers that run in families, the majority of cancers in kids develop in previously healthy children. In many cases, there is no significant history of cancer within the family. Something changes the genetic material of certain cells, which is what causes cells to become cancerous. What causes these changes is mostly unknown
Just as with adults, the main treatment methods include chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation. There are some cancers that can be treated with just surgery, but most of them require chemotherapy to ensure the cancer is gone for the long-term.
Radiation tends to be the treatment of choice for brain tumors and is combined with chemotherapy to treat tumors that have developed in other organs. Leukemia, the most common childhood cancer, is treated just with chemotherapy.
If a child has a bone marrow transplant, the intensity of their chemotherapy can be increased. This is a treatment that is reserved for those children with neuroblastoma or high-risk leukemia.
Basically, the treatments are the same as they have been for decades, but the intensity has been increased or more successful combinations of treatments has been realized. This has resulted in the treatments becoming more successful. However, the goal of pediatric oncologists is to give that child just enough treatment to be successful because excessive therapy comes with some rather significant risks.
Even when successful, children who have been treated for cancer run a higher risk for developing cancer later in life. They are also at a greater risk of other health problems, including lung and heart issues, learning problems, and altered growth and development.