Childhood cancer data provide new clues

A young boy is assisted as he walks along a wooden pole.

Australia has produced the world's first national data set on child cancer detection and survival rates in the hope that it can help better inform medical researchers about early diagnosis and treatment.

Cancer Australia, the federal government's cancer control agency, has collected data on 16 of the most common types of childhood cancer to find out which ones are diagnosed early and which are their survival rates.

Cancer is the leading cause of death from illness among Australian children, with around 100 lives lost each year. In addition, 750 children are diagnosed with cancer annually.

Cancer Australia manager Robert Long says the data show that 12 of the 16 most common childhood cancers are likely to be diagnosed at an early stage.

The most common form of the disease among children, acute lymphoid leukemia, is diagnosed early in 90% of cases and most children are still alive five years later.

However, more than half of children with neuroblastoma, a form of cancer that affects the nervous system, are not diagnosed until the disease is well advanced.

Survival rates

While the five-year overall survival rates for children with cancer were reasonably high, about 85 percent, there were some exceptions for cancers diagnosed at an advanced stage.

A similar pattern was found for neuroblastoma and some sarcomas.

For children diagnosed with late stage medulloblastoma, their chances of remaining alive after five years was 44 percent compared to 80 percent for those who received an early diagnosis.

Long said the data set fills a significant gap in national cancer reports and can help medical researchers understand where efforts to improve the outcomes of children with cancer should focus.

"Understanding how early cancer can be diagnosed and what the results are at the population level are big gaps in information for us as a nation," he told AAP.

"From now on we will have additional years of data to inform so we can better understand if the results for children with cancer are improving."

The data are based on the figures collected between 2006 and 2010 by the Australian Childhood Cancer Registry of hospitals across the country.

Cancer Australia worked with the Cancer Council Queensland to develop a way to standardize information, and hopes that some other health agency abroad can one day use a similar method to improve their understanding of the disease.

Cancer Australia plans to publish more data on childhood cancer diagnosis and survival rates for the data between 2006 and 2014 early next year.