In what experts are hailing as proof that medicine is gaining the upper hand on some childhood cancers, a new government report finds that cancer death rates for children and teens in the United States have declined in recent years.
Much of the improvement has come in treatments for leukemia, once the most common cause of cancer death in this group. Brain cancer now is the most frequent cancer killer of American children, accounting for 30 percent of these deaths among youth.
Cancer and cancer deaths are relatively rare in children. In 2014, 1,785 children and teens died of cancer in the U.S. Between 1999 and 2014, the cancer death rate for youngsters ages 1 through 19 declined 20 percent from 2.85 to 2.28 per 100,000 children, according to data compiled by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Even as death rates declined, the overall incidence of pediatric cancer for children and teens has increased slightly, rising from 16 per 100,000 in 1999 to 18 per 100,0000 in 2013, the most recent year for which data were available.
The reasons aren't fully understood. Some point to environmental factors like pollution or being around adults who smoke, and others note that detection has improved, said Andrew W. Walter, pediatric oncologist with the Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington.
He said the new study brought welcome news. "It shows something we have been hoping to see for some time - the overall cancer [death] rate beginning to drop, " Walter said. One reason for the progress he cited is the Children's Oncology Group, an organization of most of the pediatric care centers in the United States. That cooperation, and following standardized care guidelines, has helped show what treatments are most effective, he said.
Another positive change during the years reviewed by the study is treating adolescents at specialty centers rather than adult centers, Walter said. While 15-to-19-year-olds had a higher cancer death rate than younger children, according to the CDC study, that group still saw a 22 percent drop in the cancer rate from 1999 to 2014.
As research advances have improved the care of leukemia patients, the Summy family of Media hope to see the same happen for children with brain cancer.
On Nov. 5, 2014, Naya Galyn Summy, a spirited 11-year-old who loved science, skiing and horses, succumbed to medulloblastoma, the most common of childhood brain tumors. Her family -- parents Amy and Hank, and brother Zak -- formed the Naya Foundation and No More Kids with Cancer to help raise awareness and research funds. Since 2013, their Team Naya has been the top fund-raising team at the Parkway Run and Walk, the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia's largest cancer fund-raiser. They hope to keep that record at this year's event, on Sept. 25.
Recently they announced a $155,000 award to the Pacific Pediatric Neuro-Oncology Consortium to help fund a national Phase 1 clinical trial of engineered measles virus to kill medulloblastoma. Sabine Mueller, the pediatric neuro-oncologist who is the lead investigator in the trial, said the measles virus has shown promising results in Mayo Clinic research on adult cancers. She said the pediatric trial has federal approval and may start as soon as next month.
Like Mueller, the Summys hope that future treatments not only will save children's lives, but also will avoid the adverse effects of current therapies, some of which date back to the 1950s.
"It's important for us to find nontoxic cures for kids with cancer," Hank Summy said. "That's what we are trying to fund."