Cancer is a general term for illnesses caused by uncontrolled cell growth. Adult cancer awareness and attention have grown exponentially in recent decades. Yet, many people still don’t know much about cancer in children. Did you know that one out of every 285 children in the United States will be diagnosed with cancer before they reach the age of 20? Or that more than 1,700 children in the U.S. would die from childhood cancer this year? The American Childhood Cancer Organization (ACCO) is committed to raising awareness about this terrible disease and the heartbreaking toll it exacts on children and their families. So let’s start with some basic information about childhood cancer.
- Approximately 400,000 children and adolescents aged 0 to 19 are diagnosed with cancer each year.
- Leukemias, brain cancers, lymphomas, and solid tumors such as neuroblastoma and Wilms tumors are the most common types of cancer in children
- More than 80% of children with cancer are cured in high-income nations where full treatment is generally available. An estimated 15-45 percent of people in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) are cured.
- In general, screening cannot detect and prevent childhood cancer.
- The majority of cancer in children are curable using generic medications and other types of therapy.
The most common types of cancer in children and their reasons
The most common types of cancer in children differ from those seen in adults. These include:
- Brain and spinal cord tumors
- Wilms tumor
- Lymphoma (including both Hodgkin and non-Hodgkin)
- Cancer of the bones (including osteosarcoma and Ewing sarcoma)
Other types of cancer in children are rare, although they do occur sometimes. Children may get cancers that are far more common in adults in very rare cases.
The most common cancer in children are leukemias, which are cancers of the bone marrow and blood. They account for around 28% of all childhood cancers. Acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL) and acute myeloid leukemia (AML) are the most common forms in children (AML). These leukemias can cause symptoms such as bone and joint pain, weariness, weakness, pale complexion, bleeding or bruising, fever, weight loss, and others. Acute leukemias can quickly spread. So, they must be treated (usually with chemotherapy) as soon as they are found.
2. Bone Cancers
Bone cancer is most common in older adolescents and younger teenagers, though it can develop in both children and adults. In children, there are two kinds of bone cancer: osteosarcoma and Ewing sarcoma.
Osteosarcoma grows from the ends of the kid’s leg and arm bones, which extend as the kid grows taller. Ewing sarcoma is less common and usually begins in the hip bones, ribs, shoulder blades, or the center of the leg bones.
Quick facts about bone cancer:
- Children’s 5-year survival rate: Osteosarcoma accounts for 60% of cases, whereas Ewing sarcoma accounts for 62% of cases.
- Cancer in children accounts for 3% of all cancers.
Bone cancer symptoms include bone pain that worsens at night or with movement, as well as swelling around the bones.
3. Brain and spinal cord tumors
The second most prevalent malignancy in children is brain and spinal cord tumors. They account for around 26% of all childhood cancers. There are many forms of brain and spinal cord tumors. And each has a different therapy and outlook.
Most childhood brain tumors begin in the lower areas of the brain, such as the cerebellum or brain stem. They can cause headaches, nausea, vomiting, double vision, disorientation, seizures, difficulty walking or handling items, and other symptoms. Spinal cord tumors are less common in both children and adults than brain tumors.
Lymphomas begin in immune system cells known as lymphocytes. These cancers most commonly begin in lymph nodes or other lymph tissues, such as the tonsils or thymus. They can also have an impact on the bone marrow and other organs. Weight loss, fever, sweats, tiredness (fatigue), and lumps (swollen lymph nodes) under the skin in the neck, armpit, or groin are some of the symptoms that can occur depending on where cancer begins.
Hodgkin lymphoma (also known as Hodgkin disease) and non-Hodgkin lymphoma are the two most common types of lymphoma. Both types can be seen in both children and adults.
Hodgkin lymphoma occurs for around 3% of all childhood cancers. However, it is more common in early adulthood (usually in people in their 20s) as well as late adulthood (after age 55). Hodgkin lymphoma is uncommon in children under the age of five. This type of cancer is very similar in children and adults, including which treatments are most effective.
Non-Hodgkin lymphoma accounts for around 5% of all childhood cancers. It is more common in younger children than Hodgkin lymphoma, although it is still uncommon in children under the age of three. Children’s non-Hodgkin lymphoma is not the same as adult non-Hodgkin lymphoma. These cancers often spread fast and need intense treatment. But they also tend to respond better to treatment than the majority of non-Hodgkin lymphomas in adults.
Rhabdomyosarcoma develops from cells that normally form skeletal muscles. These are the muscles that we use to move various parts of our bodies. This type of cancer can develop in almost any part of the body, including the head and neck, groin, belly (abdomen), pelvis, or arm or leg. It might result in pain, swelling (a lump), or both. In children, this is the most common kind of soft tissue sarcoma. It accounts for roughly 3% of all childhood cancers.
Retinoblastoma is eye cancer. It is responsible for around 2% of all childhood cancers. It affects children under the age of two the most. And it is seldom found in children beyond the age of six.
Retinoblastomas are often found when a parent or doctor sees something strange about a child’s eye. When you shine a light in a child’s eye (or snap a flash photo), the pupil (the black area in the middle of the eye) turns red because of blood in vessels at the back of the eye. The pupil of a retinoblastoma eye is usually white or pink.
Nephroblastomas and Wilms tumors are cancers of the kidneys that develop from immature cells in the kidneys, which filter excessive water, salt, and waste from our blood.
Wilms tumor is most common in children aged 3 to 4 years old. And it is slightly more common in females than boys, as well as in Black children than in other races. These tumors are quite rare in adults. Quick facts about Wilms’ tumor:
- The 5-year survival rate in children is 93%.
- Childhood cancers account for 5% of all cancers.
Parents who are concerned should keep an eye out for swelling or a lump in the stomach, fever, nausea, or a loss of appetite.
8. Germ Cell & Gonadal Tumors
Germ cell tumors are caused by the abnormal growth of immature cells that would typically develop into reproductive eggs in females and sperm in males.
Approximately 90% of germ cell cancers develop in the gonads’ reproductive cells (testes or ovaries), resulting in lumps or abnormal hormonal changes. Some of these cancerous growths might show themselves as lumps in the belly, brain, or chest. These have the potential to spread to the lymph nodes, lungs, liver, and brain.
The Bottom Line
If you are worried that your kid may get cancer, keep an eye out for the symptoms listed above. These symptoms are most likely caused by another sickness or injury, but this also makes it more difficult to identify when it is cancer. Take your child to the doctor if you see any worrying changes in them.
When your kid is diagnosed with cancer, the news can be overwhelming—it can knock anybody off their feet. Most cancer in children, thankfully, is curable and has good survival rates.
Rely on your community for additional support, and connect with a network of other cancer survivors and their families.