Fighting Cancer in Kids: The New Progress
- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has just released data on the declines in cancer death rates among youth across the U.S, and it’s believed to be caused by advancements in treatment, like immunotherapy.
- Following the CDC’s new report, we can’t help but think about how it was revealed last year that child actor Will Powell, known for playing a young Prince Harry in series five of “The Crown,” successfully battled leukemia as a child.
- Leukemia is different from other types of cancer because it is not just broken down into stages of severity, but into different categories based on the cells that grow into cancer cells and how quickly those cells grew. In this blood cancer, one type of white blood cells is growing out of proportion to the others, and taking up the body’s resources.
- Immunotherapy is a relatively new type of cancer treatment which harnesses the power of the immune system to recognize and kill cancer cells. In some patients, the results can be life-changing, just as it appears to be doing in the youth battling cancer. Immunotherapy has ben hailed as the new frontier in cancer treatment and Dr. Steven Rosenberg, the Chief of Surgery at the National Cancer Institute, is its pioneer.
At the time the news was revealed, in December 2022, Will’s parents Andy and Michelle explained how their beloved son underwent daily chemotherapy for three and a half years, as well as 27 surgeries amid his battle with the blood cell cancer.Read More
Will’s parents recounted feeling as if they were “bursting with excitement” prior to the series’ launch, adding, “The premiere was incredible. We were treated like royalty. We mixed with the stars of stage and screen, and Will took it all in his stride. He even signed his first autographs.”
The family has thanked Sheffield Children’s Hospital, where Will received treatment, for allowing him to live life fully.
“It is highly likely that without the unwavering determination and care of the people at Sheffield Children’s, Will might not be here to enjoy this incredible life experience,” Andy concluded.
“We, as a family, thank the team from the bottom of our hearts. They are such an incredible group of people.”
Why Cancer Death Rates Among Youth Are Decreasing
According to a report released this month by the CDC, the rate of child and teen cancer deaths (for both female and male youths ages 0 to 19 years old) across the country dropped 24 percent between 2001 and 2021.
“This report features data for the three largest race and ethnicity groups (White, Black, and Hispanic), which comprised 92 percent of all cancer deaths in youth in 2021,” the report states.
Additionally, the cancer death rates declined 30 percent for females and 19 percent for males.
The report, which obtained its data from the National Vital Statistics System also noted in its key findings that “declines between 2001 and 2011 in cancer death rates occurred for all age groups (0–4, 5–9, 10–14, and 15–19 years), but only rates among those ages 0–4 and 5–9 declined through 2021.”
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The decline in cancer death rates between 2001 and 2011, according to the findings, “occurred for Black non-Hispanic, White non-Hispanic (subsequently, White), and Hispanic youth, but only rates for White youth continued to decline through 2021.”
As per the report, brain cancer was the most common cancer causing death among the youth in 2021 at a rate of 0.59, followed by the rate for leukemia causing deaths at 0.48, and bone and articular cartilage cancer causing deaths at a rate of 0.25.
CDC statistician and the report’s lead author Sally C. Curtin told NBC News following the report being published that “the overall message is good news.”
Curtin said that death rates “declined across the board: all the five-year age groups, male, female, and all the race groups.”
As for leukemia, the disease which Will Powell battled, death rates declined a whopping 47 percent between 2001 and 2021.
In regard to why this is happening, Dr. Stephen Skapek of UT Southwestern Medical Center says the advancements in immunotherapy treatments seem to be the explanation.
Referring to Kymriah, a type of immunotherapy approved by the FDA in 2017, Dr. Skapek told NBC News, “Those types of immunotherapies have been remarkably effective for childhood leukemias.” However, he also noted that “they haven’t had the same impact in teenagers, nor has the scientific community seen the same advancements in treatments for brain or bone and articular cartilage cancers.”
“Dr. Skapek explained, “That could be why the survival rates in older age groups, or in some of the diseases like brain tumors and bone and articular cartilage cancer tumors, haven’t improved.”
Dr. Paolo Boffetta, associate director of population sciences at the Stony Brook Cancer Center, suggested young cancer patients “should really go to highly specialized pediatric cancer hospitals.” He also pointed out there is “an issue of access to effective treatment in African American children with cancer” when comparing them to white children with cancer.
What is Leukemia?
Leukemia is different from other types of cancer because it is not just broken down into stages of severity, but into different categories based on the cells that grow into cancer cells and how quickly those cells grew. In this blood cancer, one type of white blood cells is growing out of proportion to the others, and taking up the body’s resources.
A patient’s bone marrow will become filled with these blood cancer cells, and that could result in anemia, abnormally low levels of platelets and white blood cells failing to fight off infections.
The Promise of Immunotherapy for Cancer Treatment
Immunotherapy is a relatively new type of cancer treatment which harnesses the power of the immune system to recognize and kill cancer cells. In some patients, the results can be life-changing, just as it appears to be doing in the youth battling cancer.
Immunotherapy is also hailed as the new frontier in cancer treatment and Dr. Steven Rosenberg is its pioneer. Dr. Rosenberg is Chief of Surgery at the National Cancer Institute. One of his first ever surgeries, some forty years ago, involved a man whose cancer had disappeared.
“This patient had undergone one of the rarest events in all of medicine,” he says. “The spontaneous regression of a widespread cancer in the absence of any therapy. Somehow this patient’s body had learned how to destroy his own cancer.”
That case set Dr. Rosenberg off on a four decades-long investigation into the possibilities of immunotherapy, researching how to harness the body’s own ability to fight cancer.
His advice following a cancer diagnosis: seek out multiple opinions and find a doctor who is up to date with the latest information so you can make the best decisions for your treatment.
Remember: Immunotherapy Doesn’t Work For Everyone
Immunotherapy doesn’t work for everyone with cancer. So why do these groundbreaking treatments work for some people, but not for everyone? Dr. Vamsidhar Velcheti, the director of thoracic oncology at NYU Perlmutter Cancer Center, says that unfortunately, it’s still difficult to predict which patients will respond well to immunotherapy treatments.
“The ways cancer generally escapes the body’s immune system is by protecting itself by producing certain protein,” Dr. Velcheti previously told SurvivorNet.
“PD-L1 is one of those proteins that actually helps protect the cancer from the body’s immune system. For patients that have high levels of PD-L1, you could potentially use a single-agent immunotherapy with good outcomes. The problem is that these proteins are constantly influx.”
Dr. Velcheti did say, however, that as doctors learn more and more about the biology of cancers, they will be able to incorporate what they learn into practice and hopefully, increase the effectiveness of immunotherapy.
Treatment advances in recent decades have lead to 85 percent of children with cancer now surviving five years or more, according to the American Cancer Society. This is up from 58 percent from the mid-1970s.
But according to the National Pediatric Cancer Foundation, more than 95 percent of childhood cancer survivors have significant health-related issues because of the current treatment options, and only 4 percent of the billions of dollars spent each year on cancer research and treatments are directed towards treating childhood cancer in the United States.
Since 1980, fewer than 10 drugs have been developed for use in children with cancer while hundreds of drugs have been created exclusively for adults.
Dr. Elizabeth Raetz, director of pediatric hematology and oncology at NYU Langone’s Perlmutter Cancer Center, reminded us in a previous interview that there is still reason for hope.
“There are also targeted treatments and different immunotherapies that have been studied in adults and have now moved into clinical trials for children and there has been a great deal of excitement in the community about that,” Dr. Elizabeth Raetz told SurvivorNet.
Still, navigating a child’s cancer diagnosis can be tricky. Jayne Wexler’s son battled acute lymphoblastic leukemia and now deals with heart disease as a side effect of chemotherapy. In a previous interview with SurvivorNet, Wexler explained that in addition to regular parent worries having a child with cancer means living with a whole new world of anxieties.
“My husband and I will always have fear,” she said. “I don’t think we can ever let go of that. Just when he was OK, then he relapsed, and then he had the bone marrow transplant â€¦ so there’s always some sort of worry.”
Wexler admits she tries to live for each and every day, but its understandable that this does not always come easy.
“And I do try you hear people say this we do have to live each day and be thankful for what we have,” Wexler said.
“And it’s hard to remember that when you’re caught up, it’s very hard to just sort of enjoy the moment, because we just don’t know what’s going to happen in the future.”
Contributing: SurvivorNet Staff