Background: Cancers of individual organs generally are composed of various histologic types, each with its own frequency and demographic patterns. For childhood cancers in particular, a classification of cancers by histologic type is important for understanding the etiology and progression of the disease.
Methods: Data from the Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) Program on 9308 microscopically confirmed malignant neoplasms in children younger than age 15, newly diagnosed during 1973-1987, were made available for analysis. Tumors were grouped histologically according to a classification previously utilized in an international volume of childhood cancer incidence.
Results: The most frequent histologic types were acute lymphocytic leukemia (23.6%), astrocytoma (9.6%), neuroblastoma (6.6%), and Wilms' tumor (6.4%). Acute lymphocytic leukemia accounted for 75% of childhood leukemia. The most common form of Hodgkin's disease was the nodular sclerosing subtype, which was diagnosed in 56% of all cases. Burkitt's and Burkitt-like disease accounted for approximately one third of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, the sex ratio (male to female) being unusually high (5.7). Among the brain tumors, glioma was of interest because 198 cases (excluded from this analysis) were diagnosed without histologic confirmation--due, no doubt, to their inaccessibility for biopsy because they were located in the brain stem. The most common histologic type of soft tissue sarcoma was rhabdomyosarcoma, which accounted for 51% of the total, more than half of which were of the embryonal type. To the authors' knowledge, this report offers for the first time the relative frequencies of rare types of leukemias, such as megakaryoblastic leukemia, in childhood. This report also includes the frequencies of 21 rarer forms of soft tissue sarcoma. Five forms of childhood cancer had a 5-year relative survival rate of 85% or better. Of the cancers with the poorest outcome, three had relative survival rates of 46.5-49%; the relative survival rate of acute myelogenous leukemia was only 26.4%. The trends in survival over time for 21 types of childhood cancer also are included in this report.
Conclusions: Further refinements in classification now are available through laboratory techniques utilizing molecular biology, immunology, and cytogenetics, which are of importance in etiologic studies, diagnosis, treatment, and prognosis. It would be important in the future for cancer registries to record the results of relevant laboratory tests for further analysis by subtype.