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Childhood Cancer

What is cancer?

Cancer means that some of the cells in the body are no longer working normally. These abnormal cells grow out of control. The cancer cells kill good cells and grow in abnormal shapes and sizes. 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.

The most common childhood cancers include:

  • leukemia, which is cancer of the blood
  • lymphoma, which is cancer of the lymph nodes.
  • brain cancer
  • bone cancer
  • kidney cancer
  • sarcoma, which is an abnormal growth of muscles and other soft tissues.

Although cancer is rare in children, it is still the leading cause of death by disease in children ages 1 to 14.

What is the cause?

What causes cancer in children is not known. In children, the cell changes happen randomly and there is no way to prevent them. It is possible that certain chemicals may cause some cancers to form. Some viruses, including the types of viruses (called HPV or human papillomavirus) that grow on the uterine cervix, are associated with the development of certain cancers. Genetics may have something to do with the cause of other cancers.

What are the symptoms?

There is no one common symptom for childhood cancer. This makes it hard to diagnose cancer at first. Fevers, loss of appetite, pain, and swollen glands may occur. Other symptoms depend on the type of cancer and where the cancer is in the body.

What is the treatment?

Treatment for cancer may include more than one therapy. The focus of cancer treatment is to slow and eventually kill abnormal cells without hurting healthy ones.

Cancer therapy may include:

  • Chemotherapy. Chemotherapy uses powerful drugs to kill cancer cells. The medicine is put in to the bloodstream through a vein. The child usually needs to have several treatments, depending on the kind of cancer. Chemotherapy has some side effects including hair loss, vomiting, anemia, nausea, and fatigue. Some of the drugs also have long-term side effects such as damage to some organs in the body.
  • Surgery. Surgery is used to remove cancer cells if a child has a solid tumor that hasn't spread to other parts of the body.
  • Radiation. Radiation uses high-energy waves or particles to kill cancer cells or shrink tumors. This is a common treatment for brain tumors or a type of cancer called Hodgkin's disease.

Up to 70% of children with cancer can be cured. A surge of well-being, activity, and weight gain may occur once a child is cured. It is a dramatic change for the child and the family.

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. Family history and the age of the child when first treated are also factors. Long-term follow-up health visits are vital.

Where can I get more information?

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

Candlelighter's Childhood Cancer Foundation is a national support organization. It provides support for children with cancer and their parents. Local chapters are in all 50 states and 30 countries. They provide support groups for parents, funding for transportation, and send child cancer patients to special summer camps. Call 800-366-2223 for more information and for the telephone number of the local chapter near you or visit their Web site at

Other resources include the American Cancer Society at 800-ACS-2345 or and the National Cancer Institute at 800-4-CANCER or

Disclaimer: This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information provided is intended to be informative and educational and is not a replacement for professional medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.

HIA File canc3711.htm Release 13/2010

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