Children, Cancer, and the Environment

How common is childhood cancer?

In 1998, about 12,400 children under 20 in the US were found to have cancer (1).  That same year, 2,500 children died from cancer (2).

The federal government tracks cancer only in certain parts of the US.  Based on these areas, the National Cancer Institute estimates that about 150 children out of one million will be found to have cancer each year (2).  Cancer is much more common in adults than in children.  By comparison, the cancer rate for people of all ages in the US was about 4000 cases per million persons in the US (1).

Only about 2% of all cases of cancer occur in children.  Children under the age of 18 represent almost 26% of the population of the US (3).

Cancer kills more children than any other disease. Cancer is the second most common cause of death in children, second only to injuries.  Leukemia is the most common cancer in children, and brain and central nervous system cancers are second.

Though a relatively small number of children die from cancer, the average number of years of life lost is extremely high -- about 70 years.  Fortunately, however, the death rate from childhood cancer has decreased dramatically since 1970 for most forms of childhood cancer, largely due to improved treatments. 

Treatments for childhood cancer may lead to other health effects later in life, however, including developmental effects and other cancers (4, 5).  One study of adult survivors of childhood cancer found that 58% had at least one chronic medical problem (6).  The effects can include premature death, additional cancers, organ damage, hormonal problems, or infertility.  In a recent study in Germany, survivors of childhood cancer were 12 times as likely as other children to experience a second cancer by age 15 (7).

Tragically, cancer is most common in the youngest children, particularly in infants less than one year old.  40% of cases of cancer occur in children under five years of age.  The frequency (incidence) of cancer decreases during the childhood years and increases again when children reach adolescence. 

Click here to see graph of cancer by age.

Cancer rates also vary between boys and girls, as boys are slightly more likely to experience cancer than girls.

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1.   American Cancer Society. Cancer Facts and Figures: Special Section on Childhood Cancer: American Cancer Society, 2000.

2. Ries LAG, Smith MA, Gurney JG, Linet M, Tamra T, Young JL, Bunin GR, eds. Cancer Incidence and Survival Among Children and Adolescents: United States SEER Program 1975-1995. Bethesda, Md.: National Cancer Institute, SEER Program, 1999.

3.  US Census Bureau. Population estimates for US counties, 2000.

4.  Anderson V, Godber T, Smibert E, Ekert H. Neurobehavioural sequelae following cranial irradiation and chemotherapy in children: an analysis of risk factors. Pediatric Rehabilitation 1997; 1:63-76.

5.  Black P, Straaten A, Gutjahr P. Secondary thyroid carcinoma after treatment for childhood cancer. Medical and Pediatric Oncology 1998; 31:91-5.

6.  Stevens MC, Mahler H, Parkes S. The health status of adult survivors of cancer in childhood. European Journal of Cancer 1998; 34:694-8.

7. Westermeier T, Kaatsch P, Schoetzau A, Michaelis J. Multiple primary neoplasms in childhood: data from the German Children's Cancer Registry. European Journal of Cancer 1998; 34:687-93.

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