Chemotherapy Better than Radiation for Children with Cancer

Author:  Hoi See Tsao

Institution:  Wellesley College
Date:  July 2007

A decade-long study of young children with brain tumors found that the use of chemotherapy instead of radiation therapy reduces the chances for long-term brain damage. Radiation therapy was previously believed to be the best treatment for brain tumors despite an increased risk for future learning difficulties. However, the study, conducted in the UK and published in Lancet Oncology, demonstrated that chemotherapy was just as effective and had fewer side effects on children's developing brains.

The cancer treatments of 89 children who were three years old or younger were examined. All the children had a type of brain cancer called an ependymoma and all underwent surgical removal of their tumors. An intensive course of chemotherapy was then administered to kill any remaining cancer cells. Radiotherapy was only given to children whose cancer had spread or worsened.

The researchers found that children who had received chemotherapy treatment were able to delay their need for radiotherapy by over a year and a half. Children under the age of three are particularly sensitive to the effects of radiation as their brains are less developed. Thus, children who were able to delay their radiotherapy treatment had a decreased chance of developing learning difficulties later in life. Forty-two percent of the patients did not need radiotherapy and 64 percent of the children were still alive five years after they were first diagnosed with cancer. This survival rate is similar to the survival rate obtained with radiation therapy alone.

Richard Grundy, professor of pediatric neurooncology at the Children's Brain Tumour Research Centre at the University of Nottingham and principle investigator of the project, said that radiotherapy in young children had the potential to cause short-term memory loss and reduce IQ levels.

"We know radiotherapy can be harmful to the developing brain, so avoiding it or using it at an older age if needed will hopefully reduce any learning difficulties these children may develop as a result of this treatment without compromising their chance of a cure," he explained.

Written by Hoi See Tsao