It’s Childhood Cancer Awareness Month this September, so we decided to check in with Dr Áine McCarthy, senior science information officer at Cancer Research UK for more information on the matter.
What does an average day look like as a science communications officer?
As a senior science communications officer, my role is to bring to life the exciting, innovative research that Cancer Research UK funds. We want the public to know about the research their donations supports, and about the progress that’s being made in the fight against cancer. So we feel it’s important that we explain the work we fund – and the work that’s being done on cancer more broadly. Put simply, it’s my job to explain cancer research in a clear, easy to understand way. It’s really exciting work and, as a former scientist, I love that I still get to be so close to the research.
How common is cancer in children/young adults?
Each year, around 4,200 children and young people (ages 0-24) in the UK are diagnosed with cancer. Of these, around 1,800 new cases of cancer are diagnosed in children (ages 0-14) and 2,400 cases are diagnosed in young people (ages 15-24).
The good news is that overall, cancer survival for children and young people is improving and has increased in the last 40 years in the UK. And it means that today, more children and young people diagnosed with cancer in the UK are surviving the disease than ever before.
But sadly, around 540 children and young people die from cancer every year in the UK. That means that while we’ve made great progress, we still need to do a lot more to bring forward the day when no child dies from cancer. We also need to do more to ensure that those who do survive do so with a good quality of life. That’s why we’re funding high quality research to find and develop new, better and kinder treatments for children and young people with cancer.
What support does Cancer Research UK provide for both children and their parents?
Cancer Research UK is the world’s largest cancer charity dedicated to saving lives through research. But while research is our main focus, we also provide a range of patient information services. This includes our dedicated nurses helpline which people can call Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm, freephone on 0808 800 4040. We also have an email service, which, along with the helpline, is staffed by experienced cancer nurses who respond to thousands of enquiries every year.
We then have a great website that contains lot of information about the different types of cancer, the various cancer treatments available and what people can do to reduce their risk of developing the disease in the first place. There’s also our Cancer Chat forum, which is a space for people affected by cancer to talk to each other and ask other people questions about what their experiences and what they’ve been through.
There is some concern when it comes to donating to charities, as people often wonder where their money actually ends up. With Cancer Research UK Kids & Teens, where does this money end up, and what does it contribute to?
Cancer Research UK Kids & Teens is a restricted fundraising campaign. This means that 100% of the money raised through the campaign is used to fund research into new, better and kinder treatments for children and young people with cancer. But this doesn’t mean that we will always spend all of the money that’s raised through Cancer Research UK Kids & Teens in a given year. That’s because we only fund projects that our expert reviewers believe will increase our understanding of cancers affecting children and young people, or that will bring benefits to patients.
Instead, any excess funds are carried over to the next year, where they’re available to fund high quality research proposals we receive from scientists and doctors.
Can you tell us how cancer treatments have developed over the years?
There’s been huge progress in the development of cancer treatments over the last few decades. This ranges from improving existing treatments to developing brand new ones. And they’ve all come about thanks to research. For example, we’ve seen improvements in how radiotherapy works and is delivered. This means we’re now better at targeting it specifically to tumours, while sparing healthy tissue. You can read more about how different types of radiotherapy works on our blog.
There have also been breakthroughs in terms of developing new cancer drugs. One of the best examples of this is the success we’ve seen with immunotherapies. These drugs target the body’s own immune system and harness its power to destroy cancer cells. For some people with certain cancers, these drugs are revolutionising treatment and dramatically improving survival.
The good news is that these developments have also benefited children and young people with cancer. For example, advances in chemotherapy and radiotherapy mean that today nearly all children with Hodgkin lymphoma survive. Because of developments like this, overall cancer survival in the UK has improved. In the 1970s, 1 in 4 people diagnosed with cancer in the UK survived for 10 years or more. Today, it’s 2 in 4. We want to accelerate this progress and see 3 in 4 people surviving cancer for 10 years or more by 2034.
How do you see the landscape of cancer research changing over the next decade?
We know more about cancer than we ever did before. We know that there are over 200 different cancer types; that every patients’ individual tumour is different from anyone else’s; and that there can even be differences within an individual tumour. This means that in some cases, scientists and doctors are changing their approach to treating cancer. Right now, it’s increasingly becoming about treating the patient’s specific tumour, not just the type of cancer they have.
It’s about looking at an individuals’ tumour and the genetic faults that are in it, and giving them the treatment that’s most likely to work. We call this personalised medicine – making sure people with cancer get the right treatment for them at the right time. Increasingly, this is the way cancer treatment is moving forward. That’s not to say that cornerstone treatments like surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy will no longer be used. It will be about finding the best way to use these and other treatments, either alone or in combination, for every patient.
What can people do to support the cause? Are there any fundraising activities that you could suggest to our readers?
There are loads of different ways people can get involved and support Cancer Research UK Kids & Teens. You could do a sponsored fancy dress, run a race or even a sponsored silence for example. You can register for a fundraising booklet online. It contains loads of ideas and information about different fundraising ideas and how to get started. It also includes things to get you started like posters, sponsorship forms and even a bunting template. Plus, if you’d like anything extra like t-shirts or balloons, you can get in contact with our supporter services team on 0300 123 1861.
If fundraising isn’t for you, you can still support the cause. For example, you can buy gold ribbon pin badges (the symbol of Childhood Cancer Awareness Month) from any of our Cancer Research UK shops, from TK Maxx stores or via our Cancer Research UK online shop. You can also donate a bag of unwanted clothes, accessories or good quality houseware to TK Maxx’s Give Up Clothes for Good campaign which raises funds for Cancer Research UK Kids & Teens.
Help beat children’s cancers sooner this September by supporting Cancer Research UK Kids & Teens. To find out more, visit: www.cruk.org/kidsandteens