Brave five-year-old Oliver among thousands saved by cancer research

Brave five-year-old Oliver among thousands saved by cancer research


The parents of a brave five-year-old cancer survivor have hailed his courage and the scientific breakthroughs that kept him alive.

Oliver Brown, who was diagnosed with a rare form of the disease, is one of thousands of children and young people whose lives have been saved by treatment trials.

His mum Becci Dunn said: “Oliver has been an absolute superhero and dealt with his treatment and massive change to his life. It’s thanks to research that Oliver is here today.”

Oliver is one of more than 32,000 children and young people whose lives have been saved in the last 50 years thanks to vast improvements in cancer diagnosis and care.

The disease still tragically claims the lives of around 500 under 25s each year in Britain. But analysis by Cancer Research UK reveals that figure would be three times higher if deaths rates had remained at levels seen in the 1970s.

The data, shared with the Daily Express to mark Childhood Cancer Awareness month, suggests 990 deaths are now avoided each year thanks to progress against the disease.

Oliver, from Middlesbrough, was diagnosed with a rare soft tissue cancer called rhabdomyosarcoma after becoming lethargic and refusing to eat.

His consultant recommended he join the FAR-RMS study, which compares several different treatment regimes for rhabdomyosarcoma.

The youngster underwent chemotherapy followed by a higher than usual dose of proton beam therapy – a highly targeted form of radiotherapy which blitzes tumours with minimal damage to healthy tissue.

Oliver’s tumour behind his nasal area shrunk and he had further chemotherapy to prevent the cancer returning. He has lost most of the sight in his right eye but is now in remission.

Becci said: “Research is so important to give all the kids the best chance. Even now I still struggle to think that this was happening to him – I never imagined that something like this could happen to my little boy.”

Rhabdomyosarcoma is a rare cancer, with just over 100 cases detected each year in the UK.

This means international collaboration is vital to collect enough evidence on new treatments. More than 400 patients in 15 countries have joined the FAR-RMS study, including 163 Brits.

Professor Meriel Jenney, the trial’s chief investigator, said she had seen “dramatic” progress in treating some children’s cancers.

She said: “I became a consultant in 1993 and I was training before. I’ve witnessed the improvements in cancer survival myself over these decades. 

“It’s been really exciting to see how there has been progress made through research.

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“Some children’s cancers, such as acute lymphoblastic leukaemia, have made really dramatic improvements, where survival now is really excellent for the majority of patients.

“For others it has been more difficult, partly because of the rarity of some tumours.”

Prof Jenney, who is a consultant paediatric oncologist at the Noah’s Ark Children’s Hospital for Wales, said medics treating children’s cancers had to carefully consider the lasting effects of treatment.

She explained: “If you cure someone at the age of two or three, what impact are you having on their growth, fertility, wellbeing, psychology?

“We’ve been careful to consider the impact on the quality of life on the child. We want their lives to be as normal as possible.

“The key thing has been the ability to recruit so many children to clinical trials over those decades so we can answer research questions and make improvements.”

Over recent decades, scientists have been able to understand tumours better and develop more precise treatments.

Even more tailored therapies based on the genetic make-up of a patient’s tumours will be “the key to unlocking the future”, Prof Jenney said.

She also paid tribute to the patients who helped blaze a trail, saying: “People like Oliver and his family are key to helping us cure more children going forward.”

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