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Australian scientists baffled by rise in cancer rates among young girls

Nicole Butler reported this story on Wednesday, December 2, 2009 12:39:00

ELEANOR HALL: Childhood cancer has long been found to strike more boys than girls. Scientists
haven't yet worked out whether genetics or environmental factors are behind this.

But now a study of Australian Paediatric Cancer Registry has identified a baffling rise in the
number of young girls developing the disease nationwide.

In Brisbane, Nicole Butler reports.

NICOLE BUTLER: Annelies Cowin's daughter Jacinta was four when she was diagnosed with acute
lymphoblastic leukaemia.

ANNALIES COWIN: You know, you look at your daughter and you think no it can't be. So it wasn't
until we went to the, we had to move from the private hospital that we were in at Mater Private to
the oncology ward and we were wheeling her down in a bed to the oncology ward and I looked behind
me and there was a little girl without any hair and that's probably when it hit me the most, to
know that yes, this is serious and this is cancer.

NICOLE BUTLER: That shocking diagnosis was made in November 2006.

ANNALIES COWIN: She was allowed home but she became very, very sick and then she had to go back in
I think very close to Christmas and that's sort of when she never came home nearly for the whole
year.

NICOLE BUTLER: The little Brisbane girl endured excruciating treatments for the next two and a half
years.

Mrs Cowin says an allergic reaction to chemotherapy drugs nearly killed her daughter.

ANNALIES COWIN: There was three times definite that you had to think is this the end? So certainly
I saw children dying next to her in intensive care.

NICOLE BUTLER: Thankfully, Jacinta Cowin is now in remission.

Sadly, she's one of a growing number of young girls who've been diagnosed with the disease.

Joanne Aitken from the Cancer Council Queensland says scientists are baffled by a recent change in
childhood cancer rates.

JOANNE AITKEN: Cancer is more common in men than in women over all and it's actually more common in
boys than it is in girls. We found that the rates of cancer in girls in Australia have been
increasing over the past couple of decades by around about 1 per cent a year, so that's an unusual
finding. The rates in boys are not going up and overall the rates are fairly stable.

NICOLE BUTLER: Is that being mirrored in the adult world?

JOANNE AITKEN: No, it isn't something that we see. Overall cancer rates are going up as the
population ages because cancer usually is a disease of older age rather than children. So overall
cancer rates are going up both in men and in women but in children it's a different story.

We don't know why children really get cancer in the first place. We have very little idea about the
causes of these cancers and we certainly don't know why the rates are increasing in girls and why
they're not increasing in boys.

NICOLE BUTLER: Even though survival rates are improving, cancer remains the leading cause of
disease-related death in Australian children and experts say the disease behaves differently in
youngsters than it does in adults.

Nonetheless Dr Aitken says if the cause of the increasing rate among girls was found it could solve
other mysteries surrounding cancer across the board.

JOANNE AITKEN: And of course prevention is always the ultimate aim and unless we know what causes
it we can't start to improve prevention. So it's something that we should be concentrating on in
the next little while in terms of research.

ELEANOR HALL: Dr Joanne Aitken from the Queensland Cancer Council ending Nicole Butler's report.