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Why childhood cancer survival rates only tell part of the story

The Bloodwise logo. Bloodwise appears in black text against a white background
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11 Feb 2016

It’s staggering to think that just 50 years ago, fewer than 1 in 10 children diagnosed with leukaemia lived for more than five years. Now, an incredible 9 out of 10 children with the most common form survive at least this long, thanks to pioneering scientific research.

But just looking at childhood leukaemia survival rates is by no means the whole picture. Of course survival is paramount, but treatment is harsh, lasting at least two years and with toxic chemotherapy drugs that have barely changed since the birth of chemotherapy in the 1940s and 50s. Side effects can be gruelling, and the impact on normal body cells long lasting. We now know that childhood leukaemia survivors are at greater risk of heart and lung problems, infertility, stroke, psychological and emotional issues, and of developing new, second cancers later in life.

So the work is far from over. We need to find new ways to reduce the intensity and duration of treatment for children without compromising survival chances. In recent years, scientists have discovered genetic predictors and exquisitely sensitive molecular monitoring tests that have allowed doctors to de-intensify chemotherapy for some patients. Research continues to find additional genetic predictors and to uncover the biological faults causing childhood blood cancers in the first place.

With this knowledge we can begin to develop next generation therapies that home in on the rogue cells, sparing healthy tissues, and vastly reducing the toxic effects in the short and long term – it’d be like arming doctors with a scalpel rather than a baseball bat. We also need to see the same improvements in rarer forms of childhood blood cancer.

Children should be able to live the life they would have had if they'd never had a cancer. This means that the dramatic improvements in childhood blood cancer survival rates must be matched by equally impressive improvements in quality of life. Only then will we be able to say we’ve beaten childhood blood cancer.

Read more about our childhood leukaemia research and achievements