The pediatric cancer experts at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital kicked off the 50th anniversary of Childhood Cancer Awareness Month Sept. 1 by celebrating the dramatic and record-breaking increase in survival rates over the past five decades and highlighting the hospital’s focus on how to care for childhood cancer survivors after treatment.
Through comprehensive research, advanced innovations in medical treatments and improved understanding of childhood cancer, the five-year survival rates for cancer diagnosis among individuals younger than 20 exceeds 80 percent. Fewer than 60 years ago, a childhood cancer diagnosis was considered a death sentence.
“The good news is children are surviving cancer at a record-breaking rate,” said Melissa Hudson, M.D., St. Jude Cancer Survivorship Division director. “When Childhood Cancer Awareness Month began 50 years ago, a pediatric cancer diagnosis was an almost certain death sentence. Today, more than 80 percent of children in the United States diagnosed with cancer will reach the five-year survival mark.
“The survival rate increase has been so dramatic that by 2020, there will be more than half-a-million cancer survivors in the United States. So we work very hard on advancing care for cancer survivors during and after treatment to increase quality of life throughout adulthood.”
Childhood cancer survival rates vary significantly from adult cancers. In a new study, Jinghui Zhang, Ph.D., chair of the St. Jude Computational Biology Department, found that only 45 percent of the genetic “drivers” for pediatric cancers were the same as the adult cancer counterparts, suggesting the same disease for a child requires different cures.
Furthermore, studies have shown that fewer than half of the mutated genes “driving” cancer in children are the same as the genes driving cancer in adults, which illustrates how different the cancers are at a genomic level.
As survival rates have risen, treatment intensity has lessened; the less toxic treatments used to kill the cancer cells, the better off survivors are later in life. For Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, St. Jude is highlighting its focus on how to best manage a survivor’s quality of life after cancer.
With nearly a record half-million childhood cancer survivors expected to be living in the United States by 2020, pediatric oncologists look beyond survival to improving patients’ quality of life after survival.
St. Jude investigators have developed new interventions for and an increased awareness of problems for long-term pediatric cancer survivors, including:
Combatting infertility — In June 2014, St. Jude opened a fertility clinic covering the cost of harvesting a survivor’s eggs or sperm and storing those samples until the patient reaches age 35;
Treating chronic health conditions in childhood cancer survivors — St. Jude conducted the most complete assessment yet of chronic disease in adult survivors of childhood cancer, finding nearly a two-fold greater cumulative burden of chronic health problems than the general public; and
Understanding the financial hardships faced by survivors — A recently released St. Jude LIFE study found that 65 percent of adult survivors of childhood cancer face financial hardships as a result of their cancer treatments, leading St. Jude experts to recommend routine financial health screenings by primary care doctors and oncologists for patients who are childhood cancer survivors.