How common is cancer in children?
Although cancer in children is rare, it is the leading cause of death by disease past infancy among children in the United States. In 2017, it is estimated that 15,270 children and adolescents ages 0 to 19 years will be diagnosed with cancer and 1,790 will die of the disease in the United States.1 Among children ages 0 to 14 years, it is estimated that 10,270 will be diagnosed with cancer and 1,190 will die of the disease in 2017.1
The most common types of cancer diagnosed in children ages 0 to 14 years in the United States are leukemias, followed by brain and other central nervous system tumors, lymphomas, soft tissue sarcomas(of which half are rhabdomyosarcoma), neuroblastoma, and kidney tumors.1 The most common types of cancer diagnosed in 15- to 19-year-olds are lymphomas, followed by brain and other central nervous system tumors, leukemias, gonadal (testicular and ovarian) germ cell tumors, thyroid cancer, and melanoma.1
As of January 1, 2014 (the most recent date for which data exists), approximately 419,000 survivors of childhood and adolescent cancer (diagnosed at ages 0 to 19 years) were alive in the United States.2 The number of survivors will continue to increase, given that the incidence of childhood cancer has been rising slightly in recent decades and that survival rates overall are improving.
What is the outlook for children with cancer?
The overall outlook for children with cancer has improved greatly over the last half-century. In 1975, just over 50% of children diagnosed with cancer before age 20 years survived at least 5 years.3 In 2007–2013, 83% of children diagnosed with cancer before age 20 years survived at least 5 years.4
Although survival rates for most childhood cancers have improved in recent decades, the improvement has been especially dramatic for a few cancers, particularly acute lymphoblastic leukemia, which is the most common childhood cancer. Improved treatments introduced beginning in the 1960s and 1970s raised the 5-year survival rate for children diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia before age 20 years from less than 10% in the 1960s to about 88% in 2007–2013.4 The 5-year survival rate for children diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma before age 20 years has also increased dramatically, from less than 50% in the late 1970s to about 89% in 2007–2013.4
A notable example of how treatment advances have improved the outlook for children with leukemia is reflected in recent data showing that during 1999–2014, brain cancer replaced leukemia as the leading cause of cancer death among 1- to 19-year-olds.5
By contrast, survival rates remain very low for some cancer types, for some age groups, and for some cancers within a site. For example, median survival for children with diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma (a type of brain tumor) is less than 1 year from diagnosis.6 Among children with Wilms tumor (a type of kidney cancer), older children (those diagnosed between ages 10 and 16 years) have worse 5-year survival rates than younger children.7 For soft tissue sarcomas, 5-year survival rates in 2007–2013 among children and adolescents ages 0 to 19 years ranged from 65% (rhabdomyosarcoma) to 95% (chondrosarcoma),4 but children with sarcomas who present with metastatic disease have much lower 5-year survival rates.
The cancer mortality rate—the number of deaths due to cancer per 100,000 people per year—among children ages 0 to 19 years declined by more than 50% from 1975–1977 to 2010–2014.8 Specifically, the mortality rate was slightly more than 5 per 100,000 children in 1975 and about 2.1 per 100,000 children in 2010–2014. However, despite the overall decrease in mortality, approximately 1,800 children die of cancer each year in the United States, indicating that new advances and continued research to identify effective treatments are required to further reduce childhood cancer mortality.