Patient and Doctor

Childhood cancers are rare compared to cancers that affect people later in life, but their consequences are no less devastating for the children and families who are affected.

Childhood cancer is the leading cause of death by disease for children younger than 14 years. Childhood Cancer Awareness Month in September aims to raise awareness and funds for research to make progress against the disease.

St. Jude Children's Research Hospital uses the awareness month to educate people about the disease and how it can be treated. In just 50 years, advances in treatments have increased the five-year survival rate from 20% to more than 80%, according to St. Jude.

An average of 43 children are diagnosed with cancer every day in the U.S. alone, and at least 300,000 children and adolescents are diagnosed with cancer each year worldwide, according to St. Jude.

St. Jude’s aim, in conjunction with the World Health Organization, is to cure even more children, with a focus on the six most common cancers. They have been sharing research worldwide to further those advances.

Roughly 10% of children who develop cancer do so because of a genetic mutation they inherited, according to St. Jude officials. But many of the causes of childhood cancers remain unknown. While adults often get cancer through lifestyle or environmental factors, the cancer-causing mutations experienced by children are thought to occur by chance in most cases.

Part of what makes research difficult is that compared to cancers typically diagnosed in adults, cancer in children is still considered rare, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). No single medical center treats enough children with the same type of cancer to make geographic data meaningful, the CDC states. So, it launched a Survivorship, Treatment, Access and Research project for rapid data collection.

St. Jude and others regularly research the disease not only to learn more about causes, but to find better treatments. Clinical trials on illnesses ranging from blood disorders and bone marrow transplants to brain tumors and leukemia are regularly performed by the nonprofit.

Treatments available can include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy and sometimes immunotherapy, or a combination of those. Researchers are working on new methods, such as precision medicine to target specific genetic changes in the cancer, according to officials at St. Jude.

The most common cancer in children is leukemia, a type of blood cancer, according to St. Jude. Pediatric cancers also occur in organs and tissues such as the lymph nodes, and in the nervous system, muscles, bones and skin.

More than 95% of childhood cancer survivors are left with “significant” treatment-related health issues, with roughly 420,000 adults in the United States who are childhood cancer survivors, according to St. Jude. The organization regularly surveys those survivors to keep up on long-term effects and has found that follow-up care sometimes lasts years.

The CDC encourages getting enough folic acid during pregnancy, breastfeeding and enough physical activity during childhood, as some behaviors early in life may help lower the risk of developing cancer. It also suggests reducing harmful exposures to substances such as alcohol and tobacco during pregnancy, secondhand smoke, traffic-related air pollution, chemicals that can cause cancer and radiation used during medical tests.

The CDC recommends children be vaccinated against HPV to reduce the chances of multiple cancers caused by the virus, and parents should talk to their children about the connections between smoking and cancer. The CDC also advises being safe in the sun, including reduction of exposure, using sunscreen and wearing clothing that protects from the sun’s rays to avoid the risks of skin cancer.

People are encouraged to consider hanging gold ribbons in September to draw awareness to childhood cancer. They can also donate to reputable organizations that work to further pediatric cancer research.

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For more information about childhood cancers and efforts to treat it, visit stjude.org. For more data and information, visit cdc.gov.