Childhood cancers - spare a thought or more

There are many fundamental truths in the universe. Parents should not have to bury their children; children should not get cancer. But it happens, and they do. In fact, every week about 31 children and young people under 15 in the UK are diagnosed with cancer. (1) Childhood cancer is, mercifully, relatively rare - it accounts for about one in 100 cancers in the UK, but that still means that one in 500 young people in the UK will be diagnosed with cancer before the age of 15.

Leukaemia is the most common childhood cancer, making up almost a third of childhood cancers. There are two main kinds of leukaemia, acute and chronic, and these are further divided into lymphocytic and myelogenous. These complicated distinctions are important because they respond very differently to different treatments. Children tend to get acute leukaemias, which progress very quickly but have a very high cure rate with the correct treatment.

Cancers of the brain and nervous system are the second most common cause - in children, cancer involving the brain tends to start in the lower part of the brain, affecting balance and co-ordination and causing feelings of sickness, along with severe headaches. The two main types of lymphoma -Hodgkin's and non Hodgkins-lymphoma each account for about one in 25 childhood cancers. Lymphomas affect the lymphatic system - the network of channels connecting the lymph glands that swell when you have an infection.

Rarer cancers in children include retinoblastoma, a type of eye cancer, which can almost always be cured; hepatoblastoma, a type of liver cancer; and rhabdomyosarcoma, a cancer affecting the muscles.

There is good news out there - today, about three in four children with cancer are cured, compared to one in four in the late 1960s, and around 80% of children with leukaemia now survive for at least five years, compared to just 10% when I was a girl. Survival rates in the UK have more than trebled for childhood liver cancer and doubled for muscle cancer, thanks to huge investment in research and new treatments.

As childhood cancer awareness month begins, spare a thought (and ideally a pound or two) for the children and families helped by the crucial work of charities such as the Teenage Cancer Trust and CLIC Sargent. When a young person is given the devastating news that they have cancer, treatment is likely to start immediately - but it's often in a specialist cancer centre many miles from home, and involves repeated hospital stays, sometimes over years. CLIC Sargent provides home from home accommodation and respite holidays as well as emotional and practical support.

For teenagers making the difficult journey towards adult independence, a diagnosis of cancer is every bit as traumatic. They don't fit in on the paediatric ward with the little kids they used to be, and they don't fit in on adult wards with the grown-ups who don't understand them. The Teenage Cancer Trust has listened to what teenagers want - an informal setting, clear and accurate information given in a non-patronising way, access to staff who understand them, peer support - and have set up and maintain 25 dedicated teenage cancer units within NHS hospitals across the UK.

We have made great strides in the battle to conquer childhood cancer, and survival rates are getting better by the year. But even for the 'lucky' survivors, treatment is still long, arduous and frightening. Supporting these charities could make it just a little less scary.


1. Cancer Research UK key childhood cancer facts:

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