As in adults, pediatric cancer, also called childhood cancer, starts when normal cells change, or mutate, and grow out of control. Certain types of cancers, however, tend to develop more often in children. The reasons why aren’t entirely clear because only a small percentage appear to be related to an inherited genetic condition, and children haven’t had as many years to develop certain nutritional or lifestyle habits or be exposed to certain environmental factors that could affect their health. Regardless of how cancer begins, current research and advances are dramatically improving the way childhood cancer is being treated and cured.
Some diagnoses are more common in children up to 15 years old, while others tend to be more common in adolescents and young adults (AYAs), ages 15-39. Hodgkins lymphoma and non-Hodgkins lymphoma, leukemia, germ cell tumors, including testicular cancer and ovarian cancer, and thyroid cancer more commonly affect AYAs ages 15-24. Breast cancer and melanoma are more common in AYAs ages 25-39.
These are various types of childhood cancers:
Leukemias — These are cancers that arise in bone marrow and tissues that produce blood cells. The most common type of leukemia in children is acute lymphoblastic leukemia, or ALL, which arises in cells in the bone marrow. Another common type is acute myelogenous leukemia, or AML, a cancer of myeloid blood cells produced in bone marrow. Common signs of leukemia include bone and joint pain, bleeding, fever, and weakness. See Childhood Leukemia for more information.
Brain and central nervous system tumors — The most common types of brain cancers are called gliomas, which arise from glial cells in the brain and spinal cord. Signs include blurred or double vision, dizziness, and trouble walking.
Lymphomas — Lymphomas are cancers that arise in lymph tissue in the body’s immune system. Two major types are Hodgkins lymphoma, which affects lymph nodes in the neck, armpits, and groin; and non-Hodgkins lymphoma, which affects lymph nodes deep within the body. Signs include swelling of the glands in the neck, armpits, and groin.
Sarcomas — These cancerous tumors occur in bones and soft tissue, such as muscle. Osteosarcomas are common types of bone cancers that grow in legs and arms, close to joints. Rhabdomyosarcoma is a soft-tissue cancer found in muscles of the head, neck, arms, and legs. Signs include pain and a lump or swelling.
Liver cancers — The most common liver cancer in children is hepatoblastoma, a very rare cancer that most often affects children in the first 18 months of life. Signs include a painless lump, swelling, or pain in the abdomen and unexplained weight loss.
Kidney cancers — Wilm’s tumor can occur in one or both kidneys. A type of sarcoma called clear cell sarcoma can also occur in the kidneys of children. Signs include a lump, swelling, or pain in the abdomen.
Other childhood cancers — Retinoblastoma is a cancer of the retina, a thin membrane at the back of the eye. Germ cell tumors can arise in the testes, ovaries, and at the bottom of the spine, as well as in the chest, abdomen, and middle of the brain. Children with retinoblastoma may have no symptoms or a white pupil that does not reflect light. Signs of germ cell tumors include a lump, swelling, or mass that can be felt or seen.
|Most common cancers in children 0-15 years|
|Brain and spinal cord/Central Nervous System (CNS) tumors|
|Bone cancer, including osteosarcoma and Ewing sarcoma|
|Hodgkins and non-Hodgkins lymphoma|
|Leukemia, including acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) and acute myeloid leukemia (AML)|
|Rhabdomyosarcoma, a type of soft tissue sarcoma|
|Wilms tumor, a type of kidney tumor|
|Most common cancers in AYAs, ages 15-39|
|Brain and other Central Nervous System tumors|
|Germ Cell Tumors|
|Extracranial Germ Cell Tumor (Childhood)|
|Extragonadal Germ Cell Tumor|
|Sarcoma (bone and soft tissue)|
Take Advantage of Supportive Care
A cancer diagnosis doesn’t define your child or your family. It is one piece of a bigger whole. Helping maintain a good quality of life for everyone involved is important, and supportive care does just that. It can be given right after diagnosis through treatment and beyond to people of any age. Talk with your treatment team about the supportive care resources available to you and your family, and consider the following options.
For younger patients: Pediatric cancer centers often include age-appropriate playrooms or game rooms to give kids the chance to forget about their illness for a while and just be kids. Camps for pediatric oncology patients are popular. Located around the U.S., camps offer children with cancer and other serious illnesses a true camping experience, including fishing, arts and crafts and more, with trained medical staff onsite. Many survivors have wonderful experiences and make lasting friendships there.
For AYAs: Regardless of where they are treated, AYAs need age-appropriate support for their social and emotional needs. Refer to the resources on this site to learn about the young adult organizations that are available. They focus on the unique needs of this age group, offering programs related to issues such as how cancer and its treatment affect relationships, fertility and career.
For siblings: Siblings of an ill child will feel a variety of emotions, from fear and guilt to anger, and it’s important to address their concerns. Set aside time for each child, and involve siblings in caregiving, as appropriate. It may be challenging, but it may prove to be beneficial in the long term. Some studies show that a cancer diagnosis may bring families together, with siblings showing increased empathy and compassion for their brother or sister.
For parents: Continuing to parent as you did before your child was diagnosed with cancer may seem like an extraordinary task, but keep in mind that to your child, you are still the same mom or dad — cancer or not. Although you may feel overwhelmed at times, it helps to stay in a regular routine as much as possible. When the cancer or its treatments make you veer from “normal” life, switch gears, keeping in mind that flexibility, patience and honest communication with your child – and your partner – are very important. Reach out to your treatment team, clergy, mental health workers or support groups for help. You do not have to shoulder this alone.