Newsletter Signup x

Childhood cancer treatments

The outlook for children with cancer has improved dramatically over the last 50 years. In the early 1960s, three quarters of children diagnosed with cancer died. Today, more than three quarters of children survive. However this high overall survival rate masks wide variation between different types of cancer.

Retinoblastoma, a cancer of the eye, can now be cured in almost every young patient. Neuroblastoma has the worst overall survival of the 10 main diagnostic groups – at 67%. Within the main diagnostic groups, there are some rare sub-types of cancer that still have appallingly low survival rates. High grade astrocytoma, a type of brain tumour, kills more than 80% of young patients within five years.

The treatments used for childhood cancer are toxic, unpleasant and uncertain. As well as finding new ways to treat those forms of cancer which still have a poor outlook, a major challenge facing doctors today is how to make treatments safer and minimise the risk of treatment-related harm in young patients.

Where? Specialist Centers & Clinical Trials

Most children diagnosed with cancer in the UK will immediately be referred to one of 21 hospitals that are specialist centres for children’s cancer treatment.

Doctors at the specialist centre will confirm the diagnosis and plan the child’s treatment. Some of the later treatment may be given at the family’s local hospital under the guidance of the specialist centre – this is known as shared care.

The child’s treatment will usually be planned by a multidisciplinary team of specialists. Led by a consultant oncologist/haematologist, the team may also include a clinical oncologist (specialising in chemotherapy and radiotherapy), a surgeon, a nurse specialist and a pharmacist as well as other healthcare professionals such as dietitians, psychologists, physiotherapists and occupational therapists. The team will work together to provide treatment and care for the child.

Many children have their treatment as part of a clinical research trial.

Trials aim to improve our understanding of the best way to treat childhood cancers – they usually compare the standard treatment with a new or modified version of the standard treatment. Information gathered from successive trials has been one of the most important factors in the increasing survival rates for childhood cancer.

Taking part in a clinical trial is entirely voluntary; the medical team will provide detailed information and you will be given plenty of time to decide whether it is right for your child. Children who do not take part will receive the current standard treatment.

Most children diagnosed with cancer in the UK will immediately be referred to one of 21 hospitals that are specialist centres for children’s cancer treatment.

Doctors at the specialist centre will confirm the diagnosis and plan the child’s treatment. Some of the later treatment may be given at the family’s local hospital under the guidance of the specialist centre – this is known as shared care.

The child’s treatment will usually be planned by a multidisciplinary team of specialists. Led by a consultant oncologist/haematologist, the team may also include a clinical oncologist (specialising in chemotherapy and radiotherapy), a surgeon, a nurse specialist and a pharmacist as well as other healthcare professionals such as dietitians, psychologists, physiotherapists and occupational therapists. The team will work together to provide treatment and care for the child.

Many children have their treatment as part of a clinical research trial.

Trials aim to improve our understanding of the best way to treat childhood cancers – they usually compare the standard treatment with a new or modified version of the standard treatment. Information gathered from successive trials has been one of the most important factors in the increasing survival rates for childhood cancer.

Taking part in a clinical trial is entirely voluntary; the medical team will provide detailed information and you will be given plenty of time to decide whether it is right for your child. Children who do not take part will receive the current standard treatment.

Types of Cancer Treatment

There are several different types of treatment used for childhood cancer including surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy, immunotherapy and stem cell transplantation. Often a combination of these treatments is used.

Side Effects

Many cancer treatments cause side effects. This is because, as well as killing the cancerous cells, they can also damage normal cells. They can subdivide in short-term effects – those that appear when doing the treatment) – or long-term effects, which persist for months or years after treatment.

Most chemotherapy drugs act by targeting cells which divide rapidly, a characteristic of cancerous cells. There are, however, a variety of other, normal cells which also divide rapidly including the bone marrow, the hair follicles and the lining of the stomach and intestine. This gives rise to the most common side effects of chemotherapy:

  • Hair loss
  • Reduction in the number of blood cells produced by the bone marrow – which can lead to anaemia, infection and bleeding
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Loss of appetite and weight.

Steroid medicines, often used as part of the treatment regime for childhood cancers, can also cause side effects including:

  • Increased appetite
  • Mood changes
  • Weight gain
  • Irritability.

Most side effects are temporary and can be kept to a minimum with good supportive care. Your child’s doctor or nurse will discuss possible side effects with you before treatment commences.

A small number of children may experience long-term effects, which persist for months or years after treatment, or ‘late’ effects which are problems that do not develop or become apparent until years after treatment ends.

Now that so many children are surviving cancer, there is a large population of childhood cancer survivors and these effects are becoming more apparent.

However, as understanding of the biology of childhood cancers advances and our knowledge about treatment-related problems improves, it is increasingly possible to tailor treatments to meet the needs of individual children – optimising the chance of cure whilst minimising the risk of adverse effects.

The risk of adverse effects varies from child to child, depending on the treatments used, as well as the age of the child at the time of treatment.

Possible effects include:

  • Heart and/or lung complications. These are associated with both radiotherapy and chemotherapy
  • Impairment of growth. High-dose radiation to the head, spine or whole body is associated with impaired bone and soft tissue growth
  • Cognitive impairment. This is a particular concern for children being treated for brain tumours and other children receiving radiation to the head and neck. These children may have impaired intellectual ability and may have problems with visual/perceptual skills and learning ability
  • Infertility. Chemotherapy and radiotherapy (whole body or in proximity to the ovaries or testes) can both impair facility. Egg or sperm banking may be advised for some children
  • Thyroid problems. Children who receive high-dose chemotherapy to the neck may develop hypothyroidism (deficiency in the production of thyroid hormone)
  • Kidney problems. Some chemotherapy drugs carry a risk of long-term kidney damage
  • Second cancers. Childhood cancer survivors have a small increased risk of developing another cancer later in life. The risk is greatest in those who have undergone radiotherapy but some chemotherapy drugs also increase risk.

This is not an exhaustive list – the risks depend on a number of factors including the treatments and doses used and the age of the child.

The risks associated with any treatments will be explained in full by the child’s doctor before treatment commences. Every effort will be made to minimise the risk of adverse effects.

All children are followed-up for a number of years after treatment so that any problems can be identified early.

Most chemotherapy drugs act by targeting cells which divide rapidly, a characteristic of cancerous cells. There are, however, a variety of other, normal cells which also divide rapidly including the bone marrow, the hair follicles and the lining of the stomach and intestine. This gives rise to the most common side effects of chemotherapy:

  • Hair loss
  • Reduction in the number of blood cells produced by the bone marrow – which can lead to anaemia, infection and bleeding
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Loss of appetite and weight.

Steroid medicines, often used as part of the treatment regime for childhood cancers, can also cause side effects including:

  • Increased appetite
  • Mood changes
  • Weight gain
  • Irritability.

Most side effects are temporary and can be kept to a minimum with good supportive care. Your child’s doctor or nurse will discuss possible side effects with you before treatment commences.

A small number of children may experience long-term effects, which persist for months or years after treatment, or ‘late’ effects which are problems that do not develop or become apparent until years after treatment ends.

Now that so many children are surviving cancer, there is a large population of childhood cancer survivors and these effects are becoming more apparent.

However, as understanding of the biology of childhood cancers advances and our knowledge about treatment-related problems improves, it is increasingly possible to tailor treatments to meet the needs of individual children – optimising the chance of cure whilst minimising the risk of adverse effects.

The risk of adverse effects varies from child to child, depending on the treatments used, as well as the age of the child at the time of treatment.

Possible effects include:

  • Heart and/or lung complications. These are associated with both radiotherapy and chemotherapy
  • Impairment of growth. High-dose radiation to the head, spine or whole body is associated with impaired bone and soft tissue growth
  • Cognitive impairment. This is a particular concern for children being treated for brain tumours and other children receiving radiation to the head and neck. These children may have impaired intellectual ability and may have problems with visual/perceptual skills and learning ability
  • Infertility. Chemotherapy and radiotherapy (whole body or in proximity to the ovaries or testes) can both impair facility. Egg or sperm banking may be advised for some children
  • Thyroid problems. Children who receive high-dose chemotherapy to the neck may develop hypothyroidism (deficiency in the production of thyroid hormone)
  • Kidney problems. Some chemotherapy drugs carry a risk of long-term kidney damage
  • Second cancers. Childhood cancer survivors have a small increased risk of developing another cancer later in life. The risk is greatest in those who have undergone radiotherapy but some chemotherapy drugs also increase risk.

This is not an exhaustive list – the risks depend on a number of factors including the treatments and doses used and the age of the child.

The risks associated with any treatments will be explained in full by the child’s doctor before treatment commences. Every effort will be made to minimise the risk of adverse effects.

All children are followed-up for a number of years after treatment so that any problems can be identified early.

Understanding how the leukaemia gene EVI1 affects children with Fanconi anaemia

Fanconi anaemia (FA) is a rare, inherited blood disorder that leads to bone marrow failure. Children with FA ...

Read more

Get Involved Stories – Ultra Walk Challenge


Martha and Nicol will be walking for 100km in the Ultra Walk Challenge from Bath to Cheltenham ...

Read more

Great Ormond Street Hospital redevelopment

We have worked London’s Great Ormond Street Hospital to support two major capital projects: the Paul O’Gorman Patient ...

Read more