One Million Children Lose Their Mothers to Cancer Each Year, Researchers Say

Around 10 million people die of cancer each year globally, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). The most common forms of cancer responsible include lung, colon and rectum, liver, stomach, and breast. A share of deaths caused by these cancers are in mothers with young children, and a new study has shed light on how many children may be orphaned each year as a result.

According to a non-peer reviewed estimate presented at the World Cancer Congress in Geneva, one million children across the globe lost their mothers to cancer in 2020. This figure came about following a study conducted in Africa by the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which followed more than 2,000 women with breast cancer in Namibia, Uganda, Zambia, and Nigeria. More than half of the participants had died within five years.


In this new analysis, the team used data on female cancer deaths from IARC’s GLOBOCAN database along with United Nations fertility data.

Using these figures, the researchers found that about 45% of cancer deaths among mothers were due to breast and cervical cancer. IARC epidemiologist Valerie McCormack told AFP in France that these deaths are largely preventable and more investment is needed in the fight against these cancers.


The fallout for impacted families isn’t just emotional, either. It’s also financial. In the original research conducted in Africa, the team had found that families often sold their land to cover cancer treatments. This left them without money to pay for their children’s education.

McCormack says IARC also wants to investigate similar figures for fathers lost to cancer, but they say it’s harder to compile due to a lack of fertility data.

Dealing with a parent’s cancer diagnosis can be rough for children. The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry has some tips, though. Those include being open and honest about your diagnosis and treatment, not making promises you can’t keep, being prepared to explain things more than once, keeping schedules as consistent as possible, finding ways to help the child express themselves, and watching for changes in their mood or behavior, which can range from aches and pains to sleep disturbances and fighting.

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