Survival rates of Childhood Cancers have increased dramatically in high-income countries, where in excess of 80% of Childhood Cancer patients are expected to survive at least 5 years. Unfortunately, survival rates in most developing countries are still very low.
There is no obvious reason for a distinction in cancer incidence in childhood. Boys and girls are at similar genetic risk for developing cancer, unless sex chromosomes are involved, but sex hormones do not kick in until the mid-teens, meaning breast cancer or prostate cancer are extremely rare among children.
Children are most affected by Leukaemias – Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia (ALL) & Acute Myeloid Leukaemia (AML); Lymphoma – Hodgkin’s Lymphoma & Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma; Brain Cancer and embryogenic tumours such as Neuroblastoma, Retinoblastoma, Wilms Tumor and Rhabdomyosarcoma.
Boys and girls generally share a similar environment and consume basically the same foodstuffs; there is no occupational exposure to external carcinogens during childhood, and tobacco and alcohol consumption is generally low or non-existent.
In other words, the risk factors for cancer development are similar in both boys and girls so there should be a similar incidence of cancer among both genders, yet an analysis of data from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) shows this is not so.
IARC estimates that around 163,000 children aged 0 – 14 are diagnosed with cancer worldwide every year. Of these, 94,000 are boys and 68,000 are girls. This is a global ratio of 1.37 – this means that four boys are diagnosed with cancer for every three girls diagnosed.
It is not the same story everywhere though; the male-to-female ratio is nearly one-to-one in high-income regions, including America and Australia. In Europe, the Middle East and Latin America it is less than 1.3. In Southern Asia, however, the rate is higher than 1.6.
The reasons why this gender imbalance exists are unknown, but there are some clues – poorer/developing countries tend to have more of a gender imbalance in Childhood Cancers.
These rates correspond with levels of gender equality; according to International Gender Equality Rankings, women and men are more equal in North America, Australia and Europe, for instance, than in regions such as Southern Asia.
A previous study, published in 2001, found a similar diagnosis gap between boys and girls. The authors concluded:
Elevated sex ratios in developing countries reflect the socio-economic level of the society more than the nature and aetiology of the disease. So the most likely reason for the gap in many countries is that girls are less likely than boys to be referred to a doctor when they fall ill.
If this is the reason, it should be accepted as another sign of gender discrimination against girls. The fact that we see such a gender imbalance in cancer diagnosis between boys and girls requires urgent attention not only from scientists and researchers, but also from health-care providers and governments.
The Sustainable Development Goals, targets adopted by the United Nations in 2015, mandate that the world must achieve gender equality by 2030, which is an enormous task.
For the UN to end all forms of discrimination against women and girls across the globe, it urgently needs to address the fact that cancer is not being diagnosed in girls at the same rate as boys.
This means that all efforts should be mobilised to increase the access of girls to medical care; this will increase the rates of cancer diagnosis and allow girls to receive proper treatment, eventually closing the gap with boys.