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Deaths from childhood blood cancers halved in last 15 years

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Updated 21 Dec 2018

The number of children and young adults dying from blood cancer has halved in 15 years, according to analysis of data on cancer deaths in England by Bloodwise.

Leukaemia and lymphoma are the most common types of cancer in the under-25s, accounting for over a third of cancer cases this age group.

The charity’s analysis of Public Health England and NHS England data showed that the number of people under the age of 25 who died from blood cancer in England fell from 205 in 2002 to 110 in 2016 – or 1.33 per 100,000 people each year to 0.66 per 100,000 people each year. This was despite the overall number of blood cancer cases diagnosed rising from 1,041 in 2002 to 1,194 in 2016.  

Deaths from other cancers common in young people, including brain tumours, kidney cancers and sarcoma, remained largely unchanged during the period.

Bloodwise has welcomed the improvement in blood cancer survival rates, which it says is largely due to more sophisticated use of existing cancer drugs. But blood cancers are still one of the leading causes of cancer deaths in young people and treatment can have significant long-term side effects, meaning that continued research is still vital.

Dr Alasdair Rankin, Director of Research at the blood cancer research charity Bloodwise, said: “This new analysis highlights the remarkable improvements being made to survival rates for young people with blood cancer. On the whole, the same chemotherapy drugs that have been used for decades are still being used in treatment. We’ve just got smarter about using them. We’re able to better understand children’s individual cancers and tailor treatment to give each patient the best possible chance of a cure.

“As great as the progress has been, blood cancer is still one of the biggest causes of cancer death in this age group. Patients can pay a terrible price for the intensive treatment used to cure them, which can cause health problems in later life. The pace of research in this area means that there is a lot of hope for the future.”

NICE recently approved a ground-breaking new type of treatment for childhood leukaemia called CAR-T therapy, which reprogrammes patients’ own immune cells to attack leukaemia cells. CAR-T therapy is now available through the Cancer Drugs Fund for children who do respond to standard treatments, with the first children starting treatment this month.

While intensive chemotherapy remains central to treating both leukaemia and lymphoma in the under-25s, ongoing national and international clinical trials funded by Bloodwise and other charities have been integral to refining treatment and making it more effective.

The analysis was carried out on data compiled by Public Health England and NHS England: www.cancerdata.nhs.uk

Arthur's story

Nine-year-old Arthur Styles, from Lewisham in London, was diagnosed with acute promyelocytic leukaemia in September last year. Survival rates for this rare type of blood cancer are thankfully high. Treatment, which started just four days after his diagnosis, included intensive chemotherapy, steroids, blood transfusions, a drug called all-trans retinoic acid (ATRA) and a medicinal version of arsenic. Arthur went into remission and finished treatment in June 2018.

Hi mum, Suzanne, said: “Arthur is regaining energy and strength every day, but we still have difficult days. As a mother the worry is now always present, whereas before his diagnosis Arthur was never sick and rarely missed school. He only managed to attend just over half his classes this year.”

“He’ll need to have bone marrow checks every three months for the next year. We'll be forever grateful for the treatment he received and to the doctors and nurses and all the other staff at the hospital.”

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