Why is Pediatric Cancer on the Rise?

My daughter Emily, just before she went into her third surgery for neuroblastoma.

WIN! See bottom of post for learning how to prevent cancer in yourself, and win a Gift Bag from the American Cancer Society.

For you long time Breezy Mama readers, you know that my daughter was diagnosed with neuroblastoma, a type of pediatric cancer, in September of 2009. Ever since that time, it seems as if I keep hearing about kid after being kid being diagnosed with some form of cancer. At first, I just assumed that it was because I was more of aware of the disease–those of us who have been through the ordeal seem to “stick together” and tell each other our stories, since it’s always easier to talk to someone who understands. But when two friends, in two different circles of friends, had their children diagnosed, I knew something was up–it hit too close to home. So Breezy Mama turned to Dr. Robert Seeger, Professor of Pediatrics; Deputy Division Head for Research; Director, Cancer Program at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles for his thoughts on why pediatric cancer seemed to be on the rise.

How does pediatric cancer differ from “adult” cancer?

Pediatric cancers develop in rapidly growing tissues such as the blood system (leukemia), brain (brain tumors), sympathetic nervous system (neuroblastoma), bone (osteosarcoma) and muscle (sarcoma).  The most common adult cancers develop in other tissues such as lung, breast, colon, and prostate.

It seems as if there is an influx in children being diagnosed with cancer—is this true?

The incidence of some childhood cancers appeared to be increasing slightly in the early 1980s and these include brain tumors, leukemia, and infant neuroblastoma.  However, since the mid 1980s there has been no substantial change in the incidence of the major childhood tumors (Linet, et al, JNCI, 1999).

My daughter had neuroblastoma, and somewhere, casually talking to an oncologist, I heard that at one time, newborns were being scanned for neuroblastoma tumors. If it looked like the baby had one, surgery was done right away. However, in the long run, this didn’t turn out to be a good idea because unnecessary surgeries were being preformed—in many of the cases the cancer cells would have matured into healthy adult cells, and the tumor would not have grown any larger. Can you elaborate on this?

Screening for the presence of neuroblastoma by testing urine for products of neuroblastoma (HVA and VMA) did detect tumors that were not otherwise known to be present.  However, these were nearly all low risk neuroblastomas, and so high risk disease was not detected early by this method.  Many of the low risk tumors spontaneously regressed and some were removed surgically.  Because this screening did not identify high risk disease early, it has been largely abandoned.  Of note, the same urine testing is useful for monitoring disease status, once it is identified.

So many times, it seems as if children get diagnosed with cancer out of “dumb luck.” For instance, a child hits his head, has a scan to make sure there isn’t a concussion, and a tumor is found. It makes me, as a parent, wonder if I should have my children scanned just to make sure they’re clear. Do the cons of having unnecessary radiation outweigh the potential benefits of discovering the cancer?

Yes.  Childhood cancer, fortunately, is very rare, and so nearly all children would be subjected to scans that do not benefit them.  They not only would receive radiation from the CT scans but would be subjected to a procedure that would be unpleasant since CT scans use IV contrast media.  Finally, CT scans would not detect very small tumors.

As I mentioned before, my daughter is a neuroblastoma survivor. When her tumor was discovered, my husband and I agreed that we would participate in any research studies that were being done on cancer. I was asked to take part in a survey, in which, the majority of questions that were being asked were about the food that I ate (and what time of year that I ate them) while I was pregnant. Do you feel that food contributes to cancer growth?

There is evidence from studies of adult cancers that diet can contribute to the risk of cancer.  High fat and high calorie diets are associated with increased risk of breast, colon, and prostate cancer.  However, to my knowledge, there is no evidence that diet during pregnancy or early childhood contributes to the risk of childhood cancer.

In the city that I grew up in, there is a power plant. As an adult, myself, plus two of my high school peers have had children with tumors (one was non-cancerous, the other two were neuroblastoma). Do you believe there’s a link between the power plant and the tumors, or is it coincidence?

This is probably a coincidence.  Some, but not all, studies suggest that children living  in proximity to a nuclear power plant have an increased risk of developing cancer, especially leukemia.

Do you have any advice on how we can try to avoid our children having cancer? I.e. eating organically, not using harsh cleaning solvents, etc. . .

Epidemiologic studies have addressed this question but not come up with answers.  Most children who develop cancer do so sporadically (not inherited), and sporadic cancers are likely due to a combination of multiple genes that increase an individual’s risk (the “perfect storm”) of cancer and of environmental factors.  A healthy diet with avoidance of obesity and with exercise is prudent for a number of reasons.

What advice do you give a parent who has just discovered that their child has cancer?

Parents should be hopeful since approximately 80% of children diagnosed with cancer currently can be cured.  It is not a walk in the park, but there is nearly always a light at the end of the tunnel.  Parents should learn as much as they can about their child’s cancer so that they can make informed decisions (with the child if he/she is old enough to comprehend).  Finally, parents should seek treatment from physicians and centers that specialize in childhood cancer and who have a complete team for providing comprehensive care.

About Dr. Robert Seeger:

Dr. Seeger, who is a Professor of Pediatrics in the Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California, is the Division Head for Basic and Translational Research in the Children’s Center for Cancer and Blood Diseases and the Director of the Cancer Program of the Saban Research Institute at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. Dr. Seeger’s research focuses on childhood neuroblastoma and deals with 1) risk assessment (molecular quantification of neuroblastoma cells in blood and bone marrow to assess response to treatment and molecular analysis of tumors at diagnosis for predicting outcome); and 2) therapy (immunotherapy with natural killer cells and anti-tumor antibodies).

Dr. Seeger is the Principal Investigator of a Neuroblastoma Program Project Grant that is funded by the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and that provides support for the New Approaches to Neuroblastoma Therapy consortium (NANT, see www.nant.org), which is an early phase clinical trials organization that includes 16 pediatric oncology institutions in North America. He has three other grants for research on neuroblastoma from the NCI, and he works with foundations, including the  T.J. Martell Foundation, to raise funds for innovative initial research aimed at improving treatments for childhood cancer.

WIN!! Now that you’ve learned more about pediatric cancer, take the time to do something in preventing cancer in yourself. Did you know that about 50 percent of cancer deaths could be prevented if women maintained a healthy weight through diet and regular exercise, avoided tobacco products and got recommended cancer screenings?  Yet the majority of women put others before themselves and that does not bode well for sticking to a healthy lifestyle.

The American Cancer Society’s Choose You program helps women put their health first and stick to their health commitments by offering social support and financial incentives that have been proven to create long-term behavior change. All you have to do is log onto ChooseYou.com and sign up to make a commitment.   As an extra incentive, women who make a new Choose You Commitment before January 31 will be eligible to enter the ‘New Year, Choose You!’ sweepstakes for a chance to win health-related prizes, such as a trip to LA to meet with a personal trainer, spa gift certificates and more.

The American Cancer Society is also giving away one gift package, including workout kit (with pedometer and calorie counter, resistance band and jump rope), a Choose You t-shirt and flower pin. To enter, tell us in the comments section below what you do (if anything) to try and prevent cancer in your family. Do you eat organically? Exercise? Tell us!

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  1. Tracy Baxter says

    I do exercise regularly, but I need to get my diet in check.

  2. Great info – thank you!

  3. question… how do you find out your child has cancer? My usual checkups don’t really check for it (vaccines, heartbeat the usual). Are there symptoms children show so I can be in the look out?

  4. What a cute pic of Emily. Glad to know she’s doing well!

  5. I am so thankful for people like Dr. Seeger who are doing amazing research for childhood cancer, particularly, neuroblastoma! I hope there is a day when I never have to hear child and cancer in the same sentence.

  6. I have a few friends who have children who have had cancer- so this post was both really informative and helped rest my uneasy mind a bit. It won’t stop me from eating organic, avoiding all the chemicals I can and getting exercise though!

  7. Alex you asked the doctor great questions that I am sure a lot of moms, my self being included, are wondering about cancer. Thanks for the great article!

  8. Patricia– Dr. Seeger says, “An annual checkup by a Pediatrician that includes a thorough history and physical examination and possibly a routine complete blood count (CBC) and urinalysis is a good start. There is a long list of symptoms that can suggest cancer or leukemia in children, and they vary depending upon the type of cancer. In general, if your child is behaving normally, active, and eating well, he/she is probably fine. Some general, although not specific signs of cancer are weight loss, unexplained fevers, pains, and swelling or mass in the abdomen or extremities. Fortunately, cancers and leukemias in children are quite rare, and so you should not be overly concerned. Just use common sense.”

  9. To improve the health of my family, we have decided to eliminate fast food from our diet and engage in regular exercise. My older daughter is enrolled in TaeKwon-do, I take my three year old to the park daily and we walk to and from the school to drop off my older daughter together, my husband just ran his first marathon, and I am soon to begin a routine of 3 miles nightly on the treadmill.

  10. we try to heat healthly, I don’t use tanning beds and products I know that are labeled to cause cancers. and just prayers 🙂

    so sorry for your little one. My heart breaks for all these sweet kids who have to endure it!

  11. thank you for the article!!! i think christian might be referenced here. 😉 i was also wondering if all kids should get an MRI at one point so i am glad you addressed that question. most importantly, i am so glad that emily is doing so well!!! xoxo

  12. We exercise and try to eat a variety of fruits and veggies every day, not so easy with picky kids!

  13. We exercise EVERY day with the emphasis being health, not appearance. We eat really healthy…no junky preservatives or weird named ingredients. We just try to avoid processed food, and replace it with whole and homemade ingredients. The kicker? School snacks!!! The snacks that my son’s school offers are horrendous! Chips Ahoy, Doritos, Handi Snacks Pudding…basically cups of hydrogenated oil and sugar. I think he’s ALMOST trained not to take snacks with “bad oil”, but I’m sad about all of the other kids whose parents don’t know:(

  14. Eileen Murphy says

    We eat lots of fruit and vegetables, hardly ever eat red meat and drink mostly water no sodas or caffeine. Exercise has become a daily way of life for us and we try to make it fun by doing bike rides and hit nature trails for hikes with the kids and walking as much as possible. We also got rid of all household cleaners and use naturals like baking soda, vinegar and lemon juice, Borax for laundry, these products are wonderful for effective cleaning and cost very little and more than anything are way less harmful. We are financially strapped as a family but do what we can to create a toxic-free home for our kids and us.

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