Number of child cancer survivors quadruples in US Canada

Modern medicine has made huge strides when it comes to treating children with cancer, and four times as many youths now survive cancer compared to decades ago, researchers said.

Life expectancy after a battle with pediatric cancer is also longer than it used to be, according to the findings released at the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) annual meeting.

The study was based on an analysis of more than 34,000 participants in the federally funded Childhood Cancer Survivor Study, which follows five-year survivors of childhood cancer diagnosed between 1970 and 1999 at 31 US and Canadian hospitals.

“Fifty years ago, only one in five children would survive cancer, and today over 80 percent are alive five years after diagnosis,” said lead study author Gregory Armstrong, a pediatric oncologist at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

Child cancer survivors still face an increased risk of heart disease and a second cancer in the future, but improvements have been made by offering more refined and less harsh treatments than in the past, he added.

“Now, we’ve not only helped more children survive their primary cancer, but we’ve also extended their overall lifespan by reducing the overall toxicity of treatment in more modern eras.”

Researchers found that among children who live five years after a diagnosis — those known as five-year survivors — only six percent are expected to die in 15 years’ time.

That’s a big improvement over the 1970s, when there was a 12.4 percent mortality rate among children with cancer after 15 years.

Previous research has also shown that nearly one in five children who survived their cancer diagnosis would die within 30 years of other causes, such as a return of the cancer, health problems linked to their cancer, accidents or suicides.

In the present study, children who survived five years after diagnosis were followed for 21 years. During that time, nearly 4,000 (12 percent) died, including 1,618 (41 percent) from delayed effects of cancer treatment.

In addition, deaths from any cause were cut in half over the course of two decades: 12.4 percent of patients diagnosed in the early 1970s died within 15 years of diagnosis, compared to only six percent of those diagnosed in the early 1990s.

“Survivors diagnosed in more recent years had a statistically significant lower risk of dying from other health-related causes including second cancer, and heart or lung disease,” said the study.

Researchers credited a gradual refinement of treatment, including lower intensity treatment for many pediatric cancers, for the gains in survival.

“While the modernization of cancer therapy has probably made the most significant difference, improvements in supportive care for survivors, and screening, detection, and treatment of late effects, like new cancers and heart and lung disease, have played an important role in extending their lifespan as well,” said Armstrong.

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