Keeping Kids Healthy by Dr. Sally Robinson
September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. Did you know that in the U.S. in 2018 children age 11 to 14 years, 10,590 were diagnosed with cancer and 1,180 will die of the disease?
The word “cancer” certainly strikes a scary and emotional note in our hearts, and when attached to the word “childhood” it can be especially frightening. However, as with many things we fear, we can be empowered by understanding. Exactly what is “cancer”?
Every part of the body (the brain, liver, heart, bones, fingernails, muscles, and so on) is made up of hundreds of millions of microscopic cells that are specialized for that particular organ. These cells follow a very complex and highly organized instruction set from their DNA to multiply, grow, and eventually die and become replaced throughout our entire lifetimes. Occasionally, however, the instruction set becomes damaged as it is copied into newly formed cells. Usually our bodies can recognize cells with damaged DNA and repairs or destroys them. But sometimes when the instruction to “stop multiplying” is damaged, cells can multiply and grow out of control faster than our bodies can repair the damage. This is how cancer begins.
If the out of control cells come from a solid organ like the liver, brain, or a muscle, a cancerous tumor is formed. If the out of control cells originate from the blood, such as in leukemia, no tumor is usually formed, but the cancer cells are circulated throughout the body in the bloodstream. When cancer cells break off from a solid tumor and travel through the blood to other parts of the body and start new tumors, this is called metastasis. Cancer cells can be very aggressive and start to crowd out and steal energy and nutrients from normal cells so that healthy body parts can no longer function correctly.
In children, the DNA damage that starts the formation of a cancer is not typically caused by any identifiable cause or lifestyle habit such as smoking. Rather, it is more often a random mistake in the DNA instructions of cells that are rapidly multiplying during the normal growth process of children. This partly explains why some of the most common cancers in children are of the blood, brain, and bones.
Several environmental exposures have been linked to childhood cancer such as ionizing radiation from atomic bombs, nuclear plant accidents and diagnostic radiation. Other possible associations are linked to certain pesticides, organic chemicals used around the home and outdoor air pollution.
The overall outlook for children and adolescents with cancer has improved greatly. In the mid-1970’s, 58% of children and 68% of adolescents survived 5 years. In 2008-2014, 83.4% of children and 84.6% of adolescents diagnosed with cancer survived at least 5 years.
Sally Robinson, MD Clinical Professor
UTMB Pediatrics - Children's Complex Care
Also See: Pediatric Hematology-Oncology