Childhood cancers are the second leading cause of death in children, exceeded only by accidents. There are approximately 60,000 cancer survivors ages 14 and younger in the United States and about 13,000 children in America are diagnosed with cancer each year. Though pediatric cancer is relatively rare, nothing is more tragic than watching a baby or young boy or girl batting cancer.
Blood cancers are the most common cancers in children. Leukemias account for about 34% of cancers in children, followed by brain and nervous system cancers (27%), and lymphoma (8%).
Research saves lives and we have made meaningful progress in many pediatric cancers. The 5-year survival rate for kids with cancer has improved from less than 50% in 1970 to over 80% today, due mostly to new and improved treatments. For the time period of 2001 to 2007, the 5-year survival rate for children with Hodgkin lymphoma is 95%, 88% for non-Hodgkin lym¬phoma, and 83% for leukemias. These numbers lag so it is likely that the current survival rates actually are slightly better.
Children diagnosed with cancer may experience treatment-related side effects not only during treatment, but many years after diagnosis. There are increased risks of second cancers from some treatments and fertility issues. Accordingly, there are special considerations when dealing with children with cancer and it is important that children are under the care of doctors specializing in pediatric cancer and the particular type of cancer afflicting the child.
Children with cancer are some of the toughest, most resourceful, resilient, and spirited patients. Often they cope with the disease better than do their parents.
Chemotherapy, immunotherapy, and stem cell transplants are among the treatment options for many childhood cancers. Children that do not respond adequately to other treatments often benefit from a stem cell transplant which, if successful, gives a child a new immune system and rids him or her of their disease.
Often children, like adults, require the stem cells of a donor. Siblings and the national database often result in a match. However, not all children have siblings or obtain a match – particularly for minority children and multi-racial children obtaining a match may be difficult. Many children die because they do not get a match. There still are substantial risks associated with stem cell transplants, but these risks have been reduced substantially in recent years.
Meet Dr. John Cunningham. He is Professor of Pediatrics, Chief of the Section of Pediatric Hematology/Oncology, and Director of Hematopoietic Stem Cell Transplantation at the University of Chicago. Dr. Cunningham is an internationally renowned expert in childhood cancers and blood diseases. He is a recognized leader in pediatric stem cell transplantation and has developed novel uses for this treatment.
One of Dr. Cunningham’s missions is to make sure that every child who needs a stem cell transplant obtains one. Through his hard work and innovations, doctors at University of Chicago are able to purify the stem cells of parents – who are “half matches” for their children – making them acceptable for donation. Previously, stem cells donated from parents often were rejected by the child’s body, resulting in graft verses host disease (GVHD). GVHD is a serious complication that can cause skin rashes, diarrhea, liver damage, and other significant problems.
Purification significantly reduces the risk of GVHD and other complications of stem cell transplant. This unique approach is improving success rates for many children, including those who require stem cell transplants to treat leukemia, lymphoma or other diseases.
We often talk about blood cancer research being the super highway to curing cancer, leading to better treatments for other cancers and diseases. Dr. Cunningham and others are using stem cell transplants to treat sickle cell disease, immunodeficiency syndrome and other conditions. The accompanying video is a recent interview of Dr. Cunningham by Charlene McMann in which they discuss leukemia and lymphoma in children and treatment options, including stem cell transplants.
Once again, we encourage our readers to be stem cell donors, you may save a life.