Updated 15 March 2017

Brain cancer now leading childhood cancer killer

Most people, when they think of childhood cancer, probably think of leukaemia, but in US kids brain cancer has overtaken leukaemia.


Brain cancer is now the deadliest childhood cancer in the US, now ahead of leukaemia, a result of improved leukaemia treatment and a frustrating lack of progress on brain cancer.

Cancer is number four

Government statisticians have reported the change in rankings, drawing from a review of 15 years of death certificates.

"I think most people, when they think of childhood cancer, think of leukaemia," said Sally Curtin of the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. "This is kind of a changing of the guard."

Cancer is the fourth leading cause of death for children overall, accounting for about 1 in 10 childhood deaths in 2014. About a quarter these cancer deaths, or 534, were due to brain cancer. There were 445 leukaemia deaths.

Read: Strides made in treating childhood cancer

Accidental injuries remained the leading cause of death for those under 19, followed by suicide and murder, according to the report.

There are still more new cases of leukaemia each year than new cases of brain cancer, but it no longer accounts for the most deaths. That's due to advances in leukaemia treatment over the past few decades and because leukaemia is easier than brain cancer to treat, experts said.

Similar for adults

"Some types of leukaemia that a generation ago were almost universally fatal are now almost universally treatable," said Curtin, a statistician who worked on the report.

But the rate of death from brain cancer for children has held at about the same level for at least 15 years, according to the CDC report.

Read: Tips for parents of children with cancer

The trends are similar for adults, too, according to the American Cancer Society.

Leukaemia is a type cancer that affects the blood. That makes it easier for doctors to get to it and fight it with treatments like chemotherapy.

Different approaches

The brain is protected by a barrier which helps keeps many dangerous chemicals — including many cancer drugs — from getting to brain tissue or brain tumours. Surgery is difficult and sometimes impossible, depending on where the tumour is located in the brain. Radiation treatment can damage the development of a child's brain.

Read: Childhood cancer: Know the facts

"There's survival, and then there's survival at a price," said Dr Katherine Warren, an expert in paediatric brain tumour research at the National Cancer Institute.

Another factor is that scientists have only recently begun to understand that paediatric brain cancers may be biologically different from adult versions, and could require different approaches to treatment.

In 2014, the brain cancer death rate was about 0.7 per 100,000 children ages 1 through 19. The leukaemia death rate was about 0.6. The overall paediatric cancer death rate dropped by about a fifth between 1999 and 2014, the CDC reported, helped by the reduction in leukaemia deaths.

Read more:

Symptoms of cancer

Treating cancer

Preventing cancer


Ask the Expert

Cancer expert

CANSA’s purpose is to lead the fight against cancer in South Africa. Its mission is to be the preferred non-profit organisation that enables research, educates the public and provides support to all people affected by cancer. Questions are answered by CANSA’s Head of Health Professor Michael Herbst. For more information, visit

Still have a question?

Get free advice from our panel of experts

The information provided does not constitute a diagnosis of your condition. You should consult a medical practitioner or other appropriate health care professional for a physical exmanication, diagnosis and formal advice. Health24 and the expert accept no responsibility or liability for any damage or personal harm you may suffer resulting from making use of this content.

* You must accept our condition

Forum Rules