Up to 80% of children now survive cancer in the United States, which is more than at any time in history. Unfortunately progress against childhood cancer has been bittersweet.
Chemotherapy and radiation that kill cancer cells can cause serious or even life-threatening side effects from second cancers to heart and lung problems as children grow up.
A new study has found that doctors’ efforts to both cure children’s tumors and protect them from long-term complications have paid off. The study was presented today in Chicago at the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology
The study found that the death rates 15 years after pediatric cancer diagnosis have been cut in half since the 1970s.
About 6% of children treated for cancer from 1990 to 1994 passed away within 15 years of diagnosis, which was a significant decrease from 12.4% of those treated from 1970 to 1974.
Researchers analyzed more than 34,000 patients.
All of the participants in the study were considered to have survived their original cancer, because they lived at least five years after diagnosis.
Unfortunately, the legacy of cancer continued to weigh heavily on patients. About 41% of the 4,000 deaths during the study related to “late effects” of children’s treatment.
However, death rates from all causes fell during the three decades of the study. Fewer people died because their original cancers came back; because they developed treatment-related cancers; or because of heart and lung problems.
Experts have always struggled with the fact that therapy that beats the first cancer is causing problems down the road.
As doctors were able to cure more children, they began to look for ways to make treatment less toxic, but equally effective. Clinical trials demonstrated that it is sometimes safe to reduce the amount of radiation to radiate a smaller portion of the body or skip radiation entirely.
In addition to making treatment gentler, doctors are also saving lives by taking better care of survivors once they finish treatment.
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