Childhood cancer (pediatric cancer) is cancer in children (infants to age 14) and teenagers (age 15 to 19). Childhood cancers are uncommon but they can be treated and often cured. Overall, more than 80% of children and teenagers with cancer were alive five years after diagnosis.
Childhood or pediatric cancer describes a group of cancers that affect children (infants to age 14) and teenagers (age 15 to age 19). Childhood cancer isn’t common, but when it happens, it changes the lives of children with the condition, their parents and caregivers.
Thanks to newer treatments tailored to their needs, more than 80% of children and teenagers were alive five years after a cancer diagnosis. But childhood cancer treatment casts a long shadow. Survivors of childhood cancer have increased risk of second cancers and other medical conditions.
There are three groups of childhood cancers: leukemias and lymphomas, brain tumors and solid tumors. The American Cancer Society estimates that 415 in 1 million children and teenagers will learn they have one of these cancers in 2023.
Leukemias are the most common childhood cancer. The American Cancer Society estimates that in 2023, 53 children in 1 million and 35 teenagers in 1 million will learn they have leukemia. The two main types of leukemia in children and teenagers are:
Lymphomas are cancers in your child’s lymphatic system. There are two lymphoma classes: Hodgkin lymphoma and non-Hodgkin lymphoma. In 2023, an estimated 53 children in 1 million and 22 teenagers in 1 million will learn they have lymphoma.
Hodgkin lymphoma is the most common cancer diagnosed in teenagers but it may affect younger children. Childhood Hodgkin lymphomas are:
Non-Hodgkin lymphoma is more common in teenagers than in children. Non-Hodgkin lymphomas in childhood cancers include:
Brain tumors are the most common cancer affecting children and teenagers. Brain tumors can be benign (noncancerous) or malignant (cancerous). There are many types of brain tumors. In 2023, an estimated 33 children in 1 million and 21 teenagers in 1 million will be diagnosed with cancerous brain tumors.
Solid tumors develop when cancerous cells divide, multiply and eventually bunch up into masses made of cancerous cells. Children and teenagers may develop solid tumors throughout their bodies. Other common solid tumor childhood cancers include:
Many childhood cancer symptoms may look like symptoms of everyday childhood illnesses. Most children experience headaches, stomachaches, bumps and bruises. In general, any symptom that lasts or seems to get worse is something you should discuss with your child’s healthcare provider.
The Childhood Oncology Group uses the acronym CHILDCANCER to list potential childhood cancer symptoms:
On average, children are 6 years old when they’re diagnosed with cancer. But childhood cancer may affect children and teenagers of all ages.
Experts don’t know the exact cause of childhood cancer, but they’ve developed some theories that may help improve childhood cancer treatment.
All cancer happens when genes mutate and create abnormal cells. In adults, those mutations or changes happen as part of the aging process and/or exposure to carcinogens like tobacco, ultraviolet light from the sun or workplace chemicals. That’s not the case with cancer in children and teenagers.
The U.S. National Cancer Institute estimates 6% to 8% of children and teenagers with cancer have inherited (genetic) disorders that increase their cancer risk. Childhood cancer can also happen during fetal development or early infancy, when fast-dividing cells make mistakes that change DNA and cause genetic mutations that lead to cancer.
Research shows genetic mutations that drive certain inherited disorders also increase the risk of cancer. That said, not everyone with inherited disorders will have cancer. People with these disorders often benefit from having early cancer screening that may detect cancer signs before the condition causes symptoms. Inherited disorders that increase childhood cancer risk include:
Healthcare providers may use several kinds of tests to diagnose cancer, based on factors like your child’s age, overall health and symptoms. Childhood cancer tests may include:
Experts recommend being open and honest when you talk to your child about cancer. These will be tough conversations, but experts believe children with cancer benefit by knowing what’s wrong and what’s being done to help them. Older children and teenagers typically understand straightforward explanations. If your child is young, ask your child’s child life specialist for ideas on talking about cancer to young children.
Cancer treatment for children and teenagers is often different from treatment for adults. Pediatric oncologists are providers who specialize in childhood cancer diagnosis and treatment. Your child’s pediatric oncologist will develop a treatment plan based your child’s situation, including their age, the type of cancer they have, whether the cancer was caught early and treatment side effects.
Common childhood cancer treatments include:
As a parent or caregiver, you’ll need to give informed consent for any treatment your child receives. (Children and adolescents have a voice in this, of course, and teenagers ages 17 to 19 can consent to treatment.)
Take your time to understand how treatment may help your child, treatment side effects and treatment complications. Knowledge is power when it comes to childhood cancer treatment. Understanding treatment goals and side effects will help when you talk to your child about what happens after their diagnosis.
All cancer treatments cause side effects, but side effects vary depending on the treatment type and treatment approach. Regardless of treatment, you may want to consider palliative care. Palliative care can help ease your child’s symptoms and treatment side effects. A palliative care team can also help you understand your child’s treatment options and connect you with support groups.
Thanks to newer treatments, children with cancer are living longer. Because they’re living longer, they’re more likely to experience late effects.
Late effects are health issues that surface months and years after diagnosis or treatment. These health issues may include second cancers, which are new and different cancers that develop long after they’ve completed cancer treatment. Late effects may have an impact on your child’s:
In some cases, late effects may be life-threatening. Survivors of childhood cancer will need long-term follow-up care, including regular tests to detect signs of late effects.
No, it can’t. Healthcare providers and medical researchers don’t know exactly what causes childhood cancers, so it’s hard to say what you can do to keep your child from getting cancer. They do know some inherited disorders increase cancer risk. In those cases, providers may recommend early cancer screening to detect early cancers.
Survival rates in childhood cancer vary depending on the cancer type. For example, 99% of children and 98% of teenagers treated for Hodgkin lymphoma were alive five years after diagnosis. Leukemias are the most common childhood cancers. Data show 88% of children and 76% of teenagers with this condition were alive five years after diagnosis.
If your child has cancer, keep in mind survival rates are estimates based on the experiences of children with the same cancer as your child. That may be all they have in common. What was true for those children may not be true for your child.
Likewise, survival rate estimates are based on data collected over several years. Your child may have a cancer type for which there are new and more effective treatments.
If your child has cancer, survival rates may help you understand what to expect. But they’re only one part of your child’s experience with cancer. Talk to your child’s provider if you’re concerned about survival rates. They’ll help you put survival rate information into perspective.
According to the World Health Organization, more than 80% of children with cancer are cured. That data is based on the five-year survival rates for the most common childhood cancers.
The term “cure” may also apply when childhood cancer goes into remission. For example, 90% of children and 100% of teenagers treated for acute lymphoblastic leukemia attained remission. That means they don’t have cancer symptoms and tests don’t detect signs of cancer.
It’s natural to wonder if and hope that your child will be cured of cancer. Just like survival rates, your child’s provider is your best resource for information about your child’s situation.
The best way to help your child is to understand how cancer and cancer treatment will affect their physical and emotional health. Apart from managing cancer symptoms and treatment side effects, children sometimes struggle with being different from their peers. If your child needs help coping with cancer challenges, ask their child life specialist about programs and services for children with cancer. For example, many organizations have cancer survivorship programs that support people throughout their experience with cancer.
Seek care for your child if:
Rarely, cancer treatment and symptoms are medical emergencies. Your child’s provider will explain what symptoms are medical issues that need immediate care.
A childhood cancer diagnosis is often shocking and frightening news. You may need time to process that news. When you’re ready, here are some questions you may want to ask your child’s provider:
All cancer happens when cells change (mutate), becoming cancerous cells. Research suggests children and adults develop different kinds of cancer. For example, more children than adults have leukemia and neuroblastoma. Children typically receive more intense cancer treatment than adults.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Every year in the U.S., thousands of parents and caregivers hear the words, “Your child has cancer”. Increasingly, they also hear, “We can treat your child’s cancer, and we may be able to cure your child”. Thanks to newer treatments, more children and teenagers are surviving cancer. More parents and caregivers have hope their children will thrive. That said, many young survivors might experience late effects from childhood cancer and cancer treatment. Childhood cancer survivors will need lifelong follow-up medical support so providers can watch for and treat late effect issues.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 05/01/2023.
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