Childhood Cancer

What is cancer?

Cancer is a growth of abnormal cells. The cancer cells may spread to other parts of the body over time. There are different kinds of cancer, depending on the type of cancer cell and where in the body the abnormal cells are growing. Overall children are less likely to get cancer than adults.

The most common childhood cancers include:

  • Leukemia, which is cancer of the blood or bone marrow
  • Lymphoma, which is cancer of the lymph nodes
  • Brain cancer
  • Bone cancer
  • Kidney cancer
  • Sarcoma, which is cancer in muscles or other soft tissues

The sooner cancer is found and treated, the better your child’s chances for recovery. However, even advanced cancer can usually be treated. Treatment may slow or temporarily stop the growth of the cancer and ease symptoms. Ask your healthcare provider what you can expect with the type of cancer that your child has.

What is the cause?

What causes cancer in children is often not known. Exposure to certain chemicals may cause some cancers to form. Being exposed to radiation, such as being treated with radiation for other types of cancer may increase the risk for cancer later in life. Viruses such as the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), and human papillomavirus (HPV) have been linked to an increased risk for certain childhood cancers. Some kinds of cancer run in families.

What are the symptoms?

There is no one common symptom for childhood cancer. Children with cancer may have fevers, loss of appetite, pain, and swollen glands. Other symptoms depend on the type of cancer and where the cancer is in the body.

What is the treatment?

You and your healthcare provider will discuss possible treatments for your child. You may also talk with surgeon and a cancer specialist. Some things to think about when making treatment decisions are:

  • Your child’s age
  • Your child’s overall health
  • The stage of the cancer (how advanced the cancer is)
  • Whether the cancer has spread to other parts of your child’s body

Possible treatments are:

  • Surgery to remove cancer cells
  • Radiation therapy, which uses high-energy X-rays to kill cancer cells
  • Biological therapy, which uses medicine to help your child’s immune system fight the cancer
  • Chemotherapy (anticancer drugs), which uses medicine to kill cancer cells
  • The use of electrodes, ultrasound, or electromagnetic radiation to destroy abnormal tissue

Your child’s treatment will also include:

  • Preventing infections
  • Controlling pain or other symptoms your child may have
  • Controlling the side effects from treatments

Often, more than 1 treatment is used. After treatment, your child will need to have regular follow-up visits with your healthcare provider.

Most children with cancer can be cured. Children cured of cancer have more risk of getting a second cancer later in life. The risk depends on the type of cancer and how it was treated.

How can I take care of my child?

If your child has cancer:

  • Talk about your child’s cancer and treatment options with your healthcare provider. Make sure you understand your choices.
  • Follow the full course of treatment prescribed by your healthcare provider.
  • Ask your healthcare provider:
    • How and when you will hear your child’s test results
    • How long it will take your child to recover
    • What activities your child should avoid and when your child can return to normal activities
    • How to take care of your child at home
    • What symptoms or problems you should watch for and what to do if your child has them
  • Make sure you know when your child should come back for a checkup.

It may also help if your child:

  • Eats a healthy diet and gets regular exercise and rest.
  • Takes time for activities that he enjoys. It may help your child to talk with a counselor about his illness.
  • Tells you or your provider if treatment causes discomfort. Usually there are ways to help your child be more comfortable.

Counseling and support groups can help children and parents cope with the situation and help your family adjust to the changes in your lives.

For more information, contact:

Developed by RelayHealth.
Pediatric Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2014-09-11
Last reviewed: 2014-09-10
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2015 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.

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