Childhood Cancer

Cancers that affect children develop and are treated differently than those affecting adults. Unlike cancers affecting adults, childhood cancers are the result of DNA changes in the cells that happen in early life, sometimes before birth. Childhood cancers make up less than 1% of all cancers diagnosed each year1.

What are the different types of childhood cancer?

The most common types of cancers affecting children include: Leukemia (cancer of the blood), Lymphoma (cancer of the immune system), and Sarcomas (cancer of the bones, organs, or tissues). To learn more about the different types of childhood cancer, visit: childhood-cancers

What are the symptoms of childhood cancer?

Many symptoms of childhood cancer cancers overlap with those of usual common illnesses or injuries; this makes it difficult to distinguish the symptoms of childhood cancer. Common symptoms of childhood cancer may include:

  • A lump or swelling
  • A pale complexion
  • A loss of energy
  • Easy bruising
  • Ongoing pain in one part of the body
  • Limping
  • Unexplained fever or illness that doesn’t subside
  • Frequent headaches accompanied by vomiting
  • Sudden eye or vision changes
  • Weight loss

How is childhood cancer diagnosed?

For diagnosis information particular to different types of childhood cancer, please consult our specific cancer overviews.

Physical Exams involve visually and physically examining the body for any signs or symptoms of a suspected cancer.

Blood tests are a trusted means to diagnose childhood cancer. Blood tests may include complete blood counts.

Lab tests for childhood cancer are used to diagnose and classify these diseases. These tests typically include, routine microscopic exams, cytochemistry, flow cytometry and immunochemistry tests.

Imaging tests for childhood cancer may include computed tomography (CT) scans, bone scans, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans, positron emissions testing (PET) scans, and ultrasounds.

Biopsies are the removal and microscopic examination of a small amount of suspicious tissue.

What are the stages of childhood cancer?

Staging varies for each particular type of childhood cancer. For more information about the staging of common AYA cancers, please consult specific cancer overviews.

What are the treatments for childhood cancer?

This childhood cancer treatment information does not outline the particular treatment(s) a patient will receive. Rather, it provides general information about the typical treatments used for childhood cancers in general. For more information about the treatment of particular childhood cancers, please consult specific cancer overviews

Primary treatment options:

  • Surgery is most commonly used to remove tumors, surrounding tissues and nearby lymph nodes to prevent the cancer from recurring.
  • Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to kill cancer cells and/or slow the growth of a cancerous tumor.
  • Radiation Therapy uses high-energy rays or particles to kill cancer cells.

Secondary treatment options:

  • Immunotherapy boosts a patient's immune system to make it attack cancerous cells.
  • Targeted therapy employs drugs that target specific genes, proteins, or tissue environments that promote cancer growth and cancer cell survival.

What are the risk factors of childhood cancer?

  • Genetics: Some children can inherit DNA mutations from their parents that could possibly increase their risk of cancer. Certain genetic syndromes (e.g., Li-Fraumeni syndrome, neurofibromatosis, Down syndrome, and Gorlin syndrome) have been linked to an increased risk of specific childhood cancers.
  • Radiation Exposure: High levels of ionizing radiation from accidents or from radiotherapy have been linked with increased risk of some childhood cancers.
  • Previous cancer treatment: Children with cancer treated with chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy may be at increased risk for developing a second primary cancer.
  • AIDS Virus: Recent research has shown that children with AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome), like adults with AIDS, have an increased risk of developing certain cancers, predominantly non-Hodgkin lymphoma and Kaposi sarcoma. These children also have an additional risk of developing leiomyosarcoma (a type of muscle cancer). 

How is childhood cancer prevented?

Due to the primarily genetic causes of childhood cancers, there are no known lifestyle changes that prevent the development of cancer in childhood.

Mikayla D. Williams , BS student , University of Arizona
Michael Principe, MA, Information Resources and Library Science , University of Arizona
Expert Reviewers: 
Christina Laukaitis, MD, PhD , University of Arizona
Works Cited: 
St. Baldrick’s Foundation (2014). About Childhood Cancer.
Works Consulted: 
American Cancer Society (2014). Cancer in Children.