September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month in the UK, with the focus on increasing awareness of cancers that commonly affect children and raising funds to support young people with cancer and their families.
The most common type of childhood cancer, leukemia, makes up almost a third of cancers in children, and is perhaps one of the more well-known illnesses. Leukemia is not a cancer of the bone itself, but of the bone marrow and blood. However, many families are not so aware that children can also suffer from cancer of the bone. While this can develop at any age, it is most likely to affect older children and teenagers and is one of the more common types of cancer in young people.
Primary bone cancer refers to cancer that begins in the bones rather than spreading there from another part of the body. The two main types of primary bone cancer in children are osteosarcoma, which develops in areas where the bone grows quickly, and Ewing sarcoma, which occurs in the bone or soft tissues.
Osteosarcoma develops when the cells in the bone begin to divide out of control, and it usually occurs in long bones such as the thigh, shin or upper arm bones. Around 60% of osteosarcoma cases are diagnosed in young people under 29 years of age. Ewing sarcoma can occur anywhere, but commonly starts in the pelvic bones or chest wall. It is rarer than osteosarcoma but around 85% of sufferers are under 30 when they are first diagnosed.
The Bone Cancer Research Trust reports that incidence rates for cancers in children have increased by 8% over the last ten years, and stresses the importance of families being aware of the signs and symptoms of bone cancer so that diagnosis and treatment can be started as soon as possible. The symptoms of bone cancer include pain in the bone(s), which may be constant, or worse at night. Tiredness, fever or unexplained weight loss may also indicate that something is wrong. Any unexplained limp, stiff joints, lumps or swelling should be investigated, as should tenderness of a particular area or bruising easily.
Patients who are suspected to be suffering from bone cancer will be sent by their GP to their nearest Bone Cancer Centre for diagnostic tests and, if needed, to receive treatment which may include surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Bone cancer can be treated and survival rates vary depending on the patient’s fitness and previous treatment, and the type and stage of cancer when it is diagnosed.
Victoria Johnson, associate in the Penningtons Manches Cooper clinical negligence team, said: “While, overall, bone cancer is very rare, sadly it is more common in children and young people than is generally known. It is hugely important that parents and guardians know the signs to look out for, when to speak to their primary care provider and when to seek referral for further investigations.
“Any delay in diagnosis is extremely distressing for patients and their families, and can have serious consequences in terms of treatment. Bone cancer can be treatable, particularly if it is diagnosed at an early stage, but if patients are not aware that bone cancer may affect them, this becomes less likely.”