Brain Cancer Edges Out Leukemia As Top Killer Of Children

Leukemia has fallen second to brain cancer as the number one cause of cancer deaths in children according to new research from the National Center for Health Statistics. Since the 1970s, cancer deaths have been steadily dropping among children between the ages of one and nineteen.

As of 1999, just over 25 percent of all childhood cancer deaths were the result of leukemia. At the same time, brain cancer was right behind in the second slot, causing an exact one out of four childhood cancer deaths. However, according to this latest report, those two childhood killers have now switched spots, with brain cancer taking the lead over leukemia. Between leukemia and brain cancer, as of 2014, they accounted for a total of half of childhood deaths resulting from cancer.

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According to the authors of this latest report on brain cancer and leukemia, the switch in brain cancer becoming the leading killer is most likely the result of “major therapeutic advances” in the treatment of leukemia. However, while death rate percentages amidst those resulting from leukemia are waning among children, brain cancer death rates have remained constant. In total, cancer death rates for children and teens have dropped in the past 15 years by 20 percent on average, with cancer deaths among girls dropping 22 percent and among boys, 18 percent. It has been suggested that the therapeutic treatments for leukemia have dropped because doctors are better understanding how and when to apply more aggressive treatments to tumors in instances of leukemia, and when not to.

While important reductions in the amounts of death related to leukemia are dropping, brain cancer deaths have remained constant, and yet, there is some “really interesting information that’s coming out” in how doctors can battle brain cancer in children. Right now, brain cancer researchers are focusing on utilizing molecular analysis and genome sequencing to determine just what causes abnormal tumors to grow, and what causes them to be abnormal in the first place, as well as developing new medicines that target cancer molecules.

Historically, brain cancer has been extremely hard to treat. When a cancerous brain tumor is operated on surgically, the doctor has to be very careful not to damage healthy tissue that surrounds that which is affected by the cancer. Additionally, brain cancer is difficult to treat with medication because the brain has something called the “blood-brain barrier,” a sort of firewall around the brain that prevents some medications from reaching the brain at all.

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In addition to finding what treatments work best on childhood brain cancer, researchers are also trying to find the best way to mitigate the harmful effects of certain treatments. Currently, often when a child with brain cancer is treated by the most popular means — those being radiation, surgery, or certain types of drugs — if the child survives the brain cancer, they are often left with sometimes radical changes to the way they must live for the rest of their lives. An effort has begun in earnest to discover the best ways of treating childhood brain cancer that will be the least invasive to the child.

Cancer — including brain cancer — is the fourth leading cause of death across the board in children in the United States. However, the stats come out a bit differently when you divide them up by age. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the leading causes of death for children between one and four are accidents (or unintentional injuries), congenital malformations, deformations and chromosomal abnormalities. The leading causes of death for children between the ages of five and fourteen, however, are accidents (including unintentional injuries), cancer and intentional self-harm.

Childhood cancers, including brain cancer, only receive a fraction of the amount of funding that adult cancers receive in the United States.

[Featured Image by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images]