According to one cancer charity, 12 children and young people are diagnosed with cancer every day in the UK. That’s one every 2 hours and of those, only 10 out of the 12 will survive. Even then, a diagnosis of cancer in childhood can have knock-on effects with long-term side effects that can significantly impact that child’s life forever.
A cancer diagnosis is devastating at any age, but for children who are at the start of their life, it can mean lengthy and debilitating treatments, isolation from friends and family, missed schooling and if they survive, it can have a negative impact on the child’s growth and development. And obviously, it can impact greatly on their mental health and life expectancy.
But it is not just the child who suffers; it can put additional strain on a family and affect parents, extended family and friends, and siblings too.
In 2010, former President of the US, Barack Obama set up September as Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, and since then, many cancer charities have used the month to raise awareness of the problems inherent with childhood cancers and to raise money to help fund vital research and support programmes for children and their families.
What are the main childhood cancers?
Cancers that affect children are different from the cancers that affect teenagers and young adults, which are different from the most common cancers faced by adults. The 3 most common types of children’s cancer are:
- Leukaemia (30%)
- Brain, central nervous system (CNS) and intracranial tumours (20%)
- Lymphomas (11%)
Three of the most common adult cancers (lung, breast and stomach) are hardly ever seen in children.
What causes cancer in children?
Over the years, many different factors have been identified as a possible cause of children’s cancers although in reality, more research is needed, and most experts agree that more than one factor is probably necessary for the cancer to develop. Some of the identified causes of childhood cancer include:
- A predisposition or hereditary factors (genes)
- Genetic-environmental interaction – scientists believe that if a child has a predisposition to leukaemia for example, that there are other factors in the child’s early environment that may trigger the development of the disease although these are still being researched
- Ionising radiation (for example where mothers received X-rays in pregnancy, which is no longer allowed)
- Exposure to radiation (e.g. as occurred in Chernobyl)
- Non-ionising radiation such as prolonged close exposure to power lines, mobile phones and MRI scanners
- Some types of infection (Hodgkin and Burkitt lymphomas as linked to a viral infection)
- Chemical exposure such as air pollution, pesticides and second-hand smoke
More information on the causes of children’s cancer can be found here.
How many children survive cancer?
Thanks to investment in research and treatments, survival rates have been increasing over the past 50 years. In the 1960s, three-quarters of children with cancer died, whereas nowadays, over 80% of cancers are now being successfully treated. However, different types of cancer can have different survival rates. Retinoblastoma, a cancer of the eye, can be cured in almost every child and has a 99% 5-year survival rate for children in England. Neuroblastoma, which affects the nerve cells and is diagnosed mostly in babies and children under 5, has only a 67% survival rate.
What are the main treatments?
Cancer treatments have come a long way in the last 50 years and can now include:
- Chemotherapy – a chemical attack on the cancer using medicinal drugs
- Radiotherapy – high-energy radiation (similar to X-rays) is used to kill cancer cells
- Surgery – removal of the cancer or tumour by surgical means
- Stem cell transplantation – stem cells are special types of cells that have the ability to become different types of cells in the body. Bone marrow transplants can help children develop healthy blood cells, for example, to counteract leukaemia
- Immunotherapy – this is a relatively new area of treatment involving supporting the child’s own immune system to fight back against the cancer and there have been new advances in the last 5 years that are proving promising
- Complementary therapies such as Reiki, Chinese medicine, energy medicine, nutrition and mindful therapies to name but a few
Most treatments affect the children’s entire body, have a lot of side effects including sickness and hair loss, and may need to be repeated at intervals in order to cure the cancer. In addition, they are usually given at specialist centres so children may have to stay away from home for long periods of time and miss school.
Research in the US has found that more than 99% of children who survive cancer can develop a chronic health condition in their adult life which is caused primarily by the toxicity of the treatment that initially saved their life. So, surviving a childhood cancer may just be the start of a lifetime of health problems for these young people.
How can you help?
Most of us are not in the position to discover a new treatment or cure for cancer, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have an impact and make Children’s Cancer Awareness Month this September count. Here are some ideas of how you and your setting could help:
- Promote the month using your social media channels, website and through word of mouth. A lot of cancer charities have banners you can download and use
- Wear a gold ribbon (the cancer colour) to show your support
- Run a fund-raising event for a local cancer charity of your favourite cancer charity. Popular ideas for fund-raising include cake/bake sales, sponsored events such as walks/runs/swims, table-top sales, second-hand clothes or nearly-new sales
- Make a donation to a cancer charity
- Write some letters of friendship or send some artwork to your local children’s hospital or hospice
Run a cancer awareness event to explain some of the issues facing children with cancer and their families
- Have a collection in your setting and make up some hampers to donate to relevant families at your local hospital or children’s hospice
- Volunteer at a cancer charity or hospital
- Join an organised event
- Organise a “Wear gold for a day” event, asking parents for a small donation to send to a cancer charity of your choice
Whatever you do, remember to send us your stories and pictures to firstname.lastname@example.org.