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Although cancer in children is not common, approximately 9,500 children under the age of 15 were diagnosed in 2005. Many childhood cancers are treated successfully, with only about 1,600 deaths in 2005. Chromosomal abnormalities have been linked to many childhood cancers.
Just as in adults, cancer in children can affect almost all areas of the body, but many cancers occur in tissues that are growing or developing rapidly, including bone and bone marrow, the brain, soft tissues like muscle and blood vessels, and developing organs like the kidneys. About one-half of childhood cancers are leukemias, while another one-third are brain tumors . Other common cancers include Wilm's tumor (found in the kidney), neuroblastoma (usually found in the adrenal gland), soft tissue sarcomas (of the muscle), bone tumors and lymphomas. Tumors of the reproductive system, liver, eye, head and neck also occur, but are less common.
Many childhood tumors tend to spread early in the course of disease, making chemotherapy important in their management. With the exception of leukemia, the majority of childhood cancers are treated with surgery and/or radiation. When it can be performed without important cosmetic or functional compromise, the preferred treatment for local tumors is surgery. Radiation therapy is often used in the treatment of rhabdomyosarcomas, non-rhabdomyosarcoma soft tissue sarcomas, Ewing tumors, osteosarcoma, medulloblastomas, ependymomas, germ cell tumors in the brain, retinoblastoma, advanced Wilm's tumor, neuroblastoma, and Hodgkin’s disease. Radiation therapy is a powerful tool that increases the likelihood of successful cancer treatment, but may also cause side effects. The nature and severity of side effects depend on the tumor's location and type, its extent and radiation dose. Side effects may occur at any time after treatment, even 50 years later. Growing tissue in children is particularly susceptible to radiation therapy. Brain tissue in the very young can be damaged by very low doses of radiation and growing muscle and bone may also show signs of reduced potential growth following low doses of radiation. For this reason, when using radiation it is critical to avoid as much normal tissue in children as possible.
In addition, radiation has the potential risk of causing another tumor many years after treatment. These can be benign or malignant. The smaller the volume of tissue treated, the less the risk.
Because of the young age and high curability of many childhood cancers, treatment outcomes are important areas of concern. Radiation therapy can cure many of the solid tumors in children that cannot be easily removed with surgery.
Treatment outcomes following radiotherapy are important for patients of all ages. However, due to the unique sensitivity of developing organs and the high curability of many childhood cancers, the undesirable effects of radiotherapy have been the subject of many recent studies involving conventional radiation in children. Treatment with protons substantially reduces the amount of normal tissue exposed to radiation, making it ideal for treating cancer in children and young adults by decreasing long-term effects and decreasing the risk of developing a secondary cancer later in life.
Proton therapy has not been available for most children until recently. Learn more about malignancies that have been successfully treated with protons at UFPTI and elsewhere by clicking the "Continue to Brain Tumors" link below.