A Snapshot of Pediatric Cancers

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Incidence and Mortality

Cancer is the leading cause of death by disease past infancy among U.S. children. An estimated 10,380 new cases of cancer are expected to be diagnosed in children ages 0 to 14 years in 2015. The major types of cancers in children ages 0 to14 years are acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL), brain and other central nervous system (CNS) tumors, and neuroblastoma, which are expected to account for more than half of new cases in 2015. White and Hispanic children have higher incidence rates of childhood cancer than children from other racial/ethnic groups.

Although the overall incidence rate of cancer in children has increased 0.6% annually over the past 35 years, mortality rates for some types of childhood cancer have declined by more than 50 percent.1 The 5-year survival rate for all childhood cancers combined has increased from 60 percent in the mid-1970s to 86 percent in recent years. The improvement in survival is largely attributable to better treatments and to the high proportion of pediatric patients participating in clinical trials. Although outcomes have improved for many childhood cancers, progress in others has been limited. Brain and central nervous system tumors remain the leading cause of cancer-related death in children.

The causes of most childhood cancers are unknown, and for the most part, these cancers cannot be prevented. Depending on the type of cancer, children with cancer may receive different standard treatments, including surgery, chemotherapy, cerebrospinal fluid diversion, radiation therapy, watchful waiting, chemotherapy with stem cell transplant, biological therapy, or targeted therapy.

Line graphs showing U.S. Pediatric Cancers Incidence and mortality per 100,000, by race and ethnicity, for ages 0-18 from 1990-2011. In 2011, Whites have the highest incidence, followed by Hispanics, African Americans and Asians/Pacific Islanders. In 2011, Hispanics have the highest mortality, followed by whites, African Americans, and Asians/Pacific Islanders. Insufficient data available for time trend analysis American Indian/Alaska Natives.

Source: Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) Program and the National Center for Health Statistics. Additional statistics and charts are available at the SEER Web site.

NCI’s Investment in Pediatric Cancer Research

To learn more about the research NCI conducts and supports in pediatric cancer, visit the NCI Funded Research Portfolio (NFRP). The NFRP includes information about research grants, contract awards, and intramural research projects funded by NCI. When exploring this information, it should be noted that approximately half of the NCI budget supports basic research that may not be specific to one type of cancer. By its nature, basic research cuts across many disease areas, contributing to our knowledge of the underlying biology of cancer and enabling the research community to make advances against many cancer types. For these reasons, the funding levels reported in NFRP may not definitively report all research relevant to a given category.

Pie chart of NCI Pediatric Cancers Research Portfolio.  Percentage of total dollars by scientific area.  Fiscal year 2013.  Biology, 17%.  Etiology/causes of cancer, 10%.  Prevention, 2%.  Early detection, diagnosis, and prognosis, 7%.  Treatment, 44%.  Cancer control, survivorship, and outcomes research, 15%.  Scientific model systems, 5%.

Source: NCI Funded Research Portfolio. Only projects with assigned common scientific outline area codes are included. A description of relevant research projects can be found on the NCI Funded Research Portfolio Web site.

Other NCI programs and activities relevant to pediatric cancer include:

Selected Advances in Pediatric Cancers Research

  • A comprehensive genetic analysis of paired samples of tumor and normal tissue from 147 children with the pediatric soft-tissue tumor rhabdomyosarcoma revealed two distinct genetic types of this tumor based on the presence or absence of a specific fusion gene and the recurrent mutation of multiple other genes. Published January 2014. [PubMed Abstract]
  • Genetic analysis of patients with treatment-naive high-grade astrocytomas, a rare and incurable group of pediatric brain tumors, identified recurrent mutations specific to tumor location within the brain. Some of these mutations are potentially susceptible to blocking by existing drugs, and others are potential targets for drug development. Published April 2014. [PubMed Abstract]
  • Genetic analysis of inflammatory myofibroblastic tumor, a rare form of childhood soft tissue sarcoma, identified gene fusions that result in a therapeutically targetable kinase protein in 85% of the 37 tumor samples examined, suggesting that routine molecular profiling of these cancers could inform treatment for individual patients. Published May 2014. [PubMed Abstract]
  • Overexpression of LIN28B, an RNA binding protein that is often dysregulated in pediatric hepatoblastoma, is sufficient to initiate liver cancer and necessary for liver cancer maintenance in mouse models. Published August 2014. [PubMed Abstract]

Additional Resources for Pediatric Cancers


  • 1 Includes cancers in children 0-18 years of age.
  • Posted: March 26, 2015