Our Research > About Cancer

Children's Cancer
Explained

Children's cancer is different to cancer found in adults. Because of this, more research into children's cancer is needed to fund safer and more effective treatments.

What is cancer?

Cancer forms when our normal cells mutate and begin to rapidly divide, growing and dividing out of control. As a consequence, many treatments for cancer are designed to attack (or stop) rapidly dividing cells. Unfortunately, this means these treatments can also attack non-cancerous cells that are healthy and are dividing naturally. In adults, the only rapidly-dividing cells are found in your hair and your gut, which explains the common side effects of hair-loss and nausea often experienced during chemotherapy treatments.

About children's cancer

Children's cancer is different to cancer found in adults, because of this, more research into children's cancer is needed to find safer and more effective treatments.

How is Children's cancer different?

In children, unlike in adults, most of the body’s cells are still dividing rapidly as part of the normal growth process. This means chemotherapies that target dividing cells not only cause the side effects seen in adults, but also cause damage to healthy cells throughout the body. Similarly, radiotherapies can damage the DNA in healthy cells around a cancer site as well as in the cancer cells.

These types of damage can lead to lifelong, life-limiting disabilities in children, including mobility problems, learning difficulties and infertility.

  • 1 in 500 children will be diagnosed with cancer before they are 14 years old
  • And although the survival rate has increased to over 75%….
  • Approximately 60% of survivors will have a problem or ‘late effect’ related to their treatment

What causes cancer in children?

The causes of cancer in children are not fully understood and are difficult to identify. In adults the mutations that cause cancer occur over time, and are easier to understand. In children however, the mutations occur very early in life and quite often even before birth. They are not thought to be lifestyle-related, and so can strike any family.

What types of cancers affect children?

There are eight main classes of cancers found in children compared to the 100+ types of cancer found in adults. Although there are only a few categories of cancer, it is the mutations in each case that can make it difficult to not only identify the cause, but also make generic treatments difficult to use. What may work for one case of leukaemia, may cause complications in another.

What is the survival rate for children diagnosed with cancer?
The survival rate for children’s cancer has more than doubled since the 1960s, when fewer than three in ten children survived childhood cancer. Today between seven and eight in ten will survive to the age of 30 or more. So – science works….

However, due to side-effects of treatment and in some cases relapses, the survival rate falls the further way from diagnosis a child gets.

  • 90% of children survive for at least one year after diagnosis
  • 81% of children survive for at least three years after diagnosis
  • 79% of children survive for at least five years after diagnosis
  • 76% of children survive for at least 10 years after diagnosis

Sadly of the children diagnosed with cancer, around 25% will not live to see their 30th birthday.

Treatments and Support

What treatments are available for children with cancer?

Current cancer treatments available for children with cancer include Chemotherapy, Radiotherapy, Surgery, Immunotherapy, Precision Medicine and Stem Cell transplantation. Depending on the diagnosis and the strain of cancer, multiple treatments may be used. Due to a focus on adult cancer research, some of these treatments can currently be too strong or damaging for children.

Side effects of treatments can include:
Short Term –

  • Hair Loss
  • Anaemia and infection
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Loss of weight and appetite

Long Term –

  • Heart, lung and kidney damage or complications
  • Growth impairment, skeletal damage or mobility issues
  • Infertility
  • Cognitive impairment

Why aren't more treatments available for children with cancer?

In many cases, children have to rely on therapies developed for adults to treat their cancer, due to a lack of development in treatments for children’s cancer. However in many circumstances children are not able to access newer adult treatments, even where treatments would be safer and more suitable for the child. This is because pharmaceutical companies are often granted exemptions, allowing them to conduct clinical trials on adults without conducting trials on patients under 18. This means once the drug makes onto the market, it cannot legally be used with children as its safety and effectiveness has not been tested in children.


Source of Support

If you’re looking for support for those affected by childhood cancer, there are many charities who directly work with children, including:

Kidscan works exclusively on discovering and developing new, safe treatments, so that children diagnosed in future can receive the targeted therapies they need to survive and thrive


Kidscan Stories

I was diagnosed with leukaemia at 16 and began chemotherapy. I miraculously pulled through but I developed a number of devastating side-effects as a result of my treatment. I now experience excruciating pain, can no longer have children and have to use a wheelchair. Some days I can’t even get out of bed.


Laura Mills - Kidscan Patient Ambassador

Newsletter Sign Up