According to IARC (2015), the reported worldwide incidence of childhood cancer is increasing, from 165,000 new cases annually to 215,000 cases for children 14 years and younger and 85,000 new cases for 15-19 year-olds. Many more remain uncounted and unreported due to a lack of childhood cancer registries in a large number of countries.
Common childhood cancers
Cancers in children tend to be different from those found in adults, most often occurring in the developing cells like bone marrow, blood, kidneys and nervous system tissues. Life-threatening blood disorders include aplastic anaemia, thalassaemia and idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura.
Despite being relatively rare, in Western countries childhood cancer is the second most common cause of death in children aged 5 to 14 years, after accidents, whilst in Africa it does not make it into the top 10 common causes.
According to the most recent South African Children’s Cancer Study Group (SACCSG) registry statistics, for 2009 to 2013, the five most common childhood cancers in South Africa are leukaemia, followed by lymphoma (tumours that begin in the lymph glands), then brain tumours, nephroblastomas, or Wilms tumours – cancer of the kidneys - and then soft tissue sarcomas, which are tumours that begin in the connective tissue.
Leukaemia comprises 25.4% of all cancers, which is similar to rates in other countries. However, in developed countries brain tumours make up another 25% whilst in South Africa they only make up 13.4%. This discrepancy is thought to be due to under diagnosis, especially in rural and smaller hospitals.
Childhood cancers require specialist paediatric treatment by a paediatric oncologist, comprising of chemotherapy, surgery, radiation, or a combination of these treatments. In some cases bone marrow or stem cell transplantation is necessary.
With some exceptions, childhood cancers tend to respond better to treatments such as chemotherapy and children’s bodies tend to cope better with chemotherapy than adults’ bodies. In some cases chemo and radiation therapy can cause long-term side effects so children who have had cancer require careful follow-up throughout their lives. Click here to find your nearest treatment centre