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Uncovering the Good News Behind Bad Numbers: the Story Behind Childhood ‘Big C’

November 28, 2016

By Mendy Hecht, Hamaspik Gazette

A Lot More Kids Each Year Are Being Cured.  Where Are the News Reports on That?

On October 20, an article on WebMD, a leading health and medical news source, stated:

“Childhood cancer has been on the rise.  The numbers are small because any childhood cancer is rare.  Just one of every 100 new cancer diagnoses in the United States is a childhood case.  Still, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) says there has been a significant increase in the overall rate of childhood cancers in recent decades—up 27 percent since 1975 in kids under age 19.”

Not only does that sound scary, it’s also misleading.

For those who believe that the news media is deliberately sensationalistic—or, when it comes to health news, deliberately fear-mongering—the report fuels their argument.

For starters, because “27 percent” is another way of saying 1 of every 4, the report might be read by some as saying that a drastically larger slice of kids are now getting “it.”  (They’re not.)

But a hairsplitting look at the actual NCI statistics behind the article reveals an entirely different picture, though—and a reassuringly positive one, too.

Here’s what the report didn’t tell you.

Let the numbers speak

Since 1975, the Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) program has been operated within the gargantuan U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services (HHS)—one of whose primary divisions, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), is itself divided into 27 divisions.

The SEER program keeps highly detailed tabs on how many Americans get the dreaded “c” disease, and/or, unfortunately, lose their lives to it.

Fresh SEER data now published by the National Cancer Institute, one of those 27 divisions, says that 13.0 out of every 100,000 U.S. children ages 0-19 were diagnosed in 1975.  The new data also says that 17.8 out of every 100,000 U.S. children ages 0-19 were diagnosed in 2013.

So, some simple summarized math here: increasing 13.0 by 27 percent gives you 17.8.  In other words, 17.8 kids out of 100,000 are 27 percent more than 13.0 kids out of 100,000.  But does that sound like “rise,” “significant increase” or “27 percent”?  Not really.

Of course, for the parents of those few children, the dread disease is anything but insignificant, or a headline to scoff at.

And that leads us to the positive flip side of SEER’s new figures on U.S. pediatric cases: the truly significant rise of U.S. pediatric cure and survival rates.

Looking at the right numbers right

The same SEER data revealing that U.S. pediatric cancer diagnosis rates are rising (at least statistically) since 1975 also reveals that U.S. pediatric cancer mortality rates are falling since 1975.

In plain English, that means that a few more kids each year are, sadly, getting diagnosed—but that a lot more kids each year are being cured.  (Where’s the story on that?)

Rabbi Elimelech Goldberg is the founder and director of the Detroit-based Kids Kicking Cancer, an international non-profit that empowers pediatric patients with martial-arts methods of managing treatment regimens.  Rabbi Goldberg lost a daughter to the illness in the early 1980s.

“The survival rate is significantly better,” he says, asked about improvements in childhood survival rates since 1975, and about what’s really happening out there.  “There’s no question.”

Rabbi Goldberg specifically mentions leukemia, which is the most common form of pediatric cancer.  Its cure rate nowadays, he says, is “very dramatic.”

The activist’s assertion actually echoes two of the medical experts quoted in the WebMD article.  One, American Cancer Society chief medical officer Otis Brawley, M.D., is quoted as saying that while some types of childhood cancer are increasing, others have declined or stayed the same.

But the article also quoted expert Ching-Hon Pui, M.D. of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, who told WebMD that the increase of acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) diagnoses in kids from 1975 to the 1990s is “mostly because of better tests”—not because more kids are getting it.

Rabbi Goldberg also says that today, the protocol is that a child who gets the diagnosis is almost always put immediately put into a clinical trial—reflecting Dr. Brawley’s statement to WebMD that “70 percent of children with cancer are [also] in a clinical trial.”

Now, for the actual statistics:

In 1975, according to SEER, the U.S. childhood mortality rate was five out of every 100,000—meaning that, of the 13 diagnosed kids of every 100,000 kids, five would leave grieving families. 

In 2013, according to SEER, that same rate was 2.5 out of every 100,000—meaning that, of the 17.75 of every 100,000 kids who were diagnosed, only 2.5 would result in worst-case scenario.

Do the math and you get a childhood cancer mortality rate of 38.46 percent in 1975—but 14.08 percent in 2013.

That’s good enough news right there.  Again, where are the reports on that?

Now, let’s turn those numbers upside down to give them an even more positive spin.  Look at the rising number of survivors, not falling number of victims—and you get this: a 61.54 percent childhood survival rate in 1975… but an 85.92 percent childhood survival rate in 2013.

What’s more, according to the SEER’s leukemia fact sheet, “rates for new leukemia cases have been rising on average 0.3% each year over the last 10 years”—while rates of “unhappy endings” have been dropping by an average of 1.0% each year from 2004 to 2013.

Sounds a lot more heartening, doesn’t it?

Bottom line: Many more bad numbers here are going down than bad numbers are going up.

So the next time you read or hear about some negative development regarding any grim diagnosis, read between the lines—there very well may be a good story there that isn’t quite being reported equally.