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Pediatric Cancer: Types, Symptoms, and Treatment

Medically Reviewed by Hansa D. Bhargava, MD on July 02, 2020

The cancers that children get, called "pediatric cancers," are usually not the same as those that turn up among adults. Kids also usually do better from treatment than adults do.

The types of cancers that are common in children are leukemia, brain and spinal cord tumors, neuroblastoma, Wilms tumor, lymphoma, rhabdomyosarcoma, retinoblastoma, and bone cancer.

Leukemia

Leukemia is by far the most common type of cancer in kids. About 1 in 3 children who get cancer have it.

Leukemia is a form of blood cancer. That means it starts and spreads in cells that the body would normally turn into blood cells. These cells are inside bone marrow, where the body makes fresh blood.

There are two main categories of leukemia. Doctors call the first one "acute leukemia." These are fast-spreading cancers that need prompt treatment.

There are two types of acute leukemia:

  • Acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL), which makes up roughly 75% of all childhood leukemia. These start in white blood cells called lymphocytes.
  • Acute myeloid leukemia (AML), which is the second most common type of leukemia after ALL. These start in myeloid cells.

Doctors call the second main category of leukemia "chronic leukemia." These are slow-growing but harder to treat than acute leukemia. Chronic leukemia can show up in either lymphocytes or myeloid cells. They're very rare in kids.

There are a few other rare forms of leukemia. These include juvenile myelomonocytic leukemia (JMML), which shows up in a child's myeloid cells. It's not as fast-growing as acute leukemia, but it's also not as slow-growing as chronic leukemia.

Symptoms. Leukemia can cause a wide range of symptoms in kids. Some of the common ones include:

Many childhood issues and ailments can cause symptoms that overlap with leukemia. If your child has any of these symptoms, chances are good that cancer isn't the reason. Still, you'll want to report them to your child's doctor.

Risk factors. Genes plays a role in raising your chances of getting childhood leukemia. Genetics refers to traits that are passed among family members who share DNA.

Children with Down syndrome or inherited immune system problems are at a higher risk for leukemia. So are kids who have a brother or sister -- but not a parent -- who has leukemia.

Other potential risks for leukemia include:

  • Radiation. There's some evidence that CT scans, X-rays, and other sources of radiation are linked to a very small increased risk for leukemia. But the research here is mixed.
  • Chemicals. Some studies show that kids exposed to chemotherapy drugs, some manufacturing chemicals, or pesticides may have greater chances of getting leukemia. But more research is needed.
  • Immune suppression drugs. Kids who are on immune-suppressant treatments may be at a greater risk of leukemia.

Treatment. There are treatments for childhood leukemia. The right one for your child will depend on the type of leukemia and other things.

Treatments include:

Brain and Spinal Cord Tumors

Tumors are clumps or masses of overgrown cells. Some tumors are "benign," meaning they are not cancer and are harmless. But others are malignant, which means they are made of cancer cells.

About 26% of childhood cancers are brain and spinal cord tumors.

For brain and spinal cord tumors, symptoms include headaches, nausea, and vomiting. Your child might also have crossed eyes and blurred vision. Balance problems and seizures could also happen.

Doctors aren't sure what causes brain and spinal tumors in children. Genetic changes may play a role. Scientists think radiation treatment in the area of the brain that a child may have received for another disease may also be linked to this type of cancer.

Some of the main treatments for brain and spinal tumors are surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and targeted therapy.

Neuroblastomas

Neuroblastomas are tumors that start in nerve cells. These can form anywhere in the body but often turn up first in the stomach area. They make up about 6% of childhood cancers

The symptoms include a lump or swelling around the tummy or in your child's legs, upper chest, neck, or face.

Your child may also lose weight. They could have trouble breathing or swallowing, or might have problems going to the bathroom. Another symptom is pain in the bones.

Treatments include surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy. Stem cell transplants are an option in some cases. Doctors may also suggest treatment with chemicals called retinoids.

Another possible treatment is immunotherapy, which is medicine that uses your child's immune system -- the body's defense against germs -- to fight the disease.

Wilms Tumor

These are tumors that form in the kidneys. They make up about 4% of childhood cancers.

Doctors aren't exactly sure why children get Wilms tumors, but like other cancers, gene changes may play a role. Some kinds of birth defects may also be linked to Wilms tumors.

Treatments include surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy.

Symptoms include a swollen belly or a lump in that area. Fever, nausea, and a loss of appetite can also happen. So can constipation or blood in the urine.

Lymphoma

This type of cancer forms in immune system cells called lymphocytes. It tends to show up first in the areas that contain lymph nodes or tissues, such as the throat, armpits, or groin.

Lymphomas come in two main types. These are:

  • Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which is less common in kids. It usually shows up in the upper part of the body.
  • Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma is more common in kids, and it can show up anywhere in the body.

Symptoms. They differ, depending on where the cancer forms in a child's body, but can include:

Risk factors. A weak immune system and a past organ transplant procedure can raise the chances of getting non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

A weak immune system can also raise the odds of getting Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Treatment. For non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, treatment may involve:

  • Chemotherapy
  • Stem cell transplant
  • Radiation
  • Drug therapy
  • Surgery

For Hodgkin’s lymphoma, your child may get treated with:

Rhabdomyosarcoma

Sarcomas are cancers that form in the body's connective tissues like muscle and fat. Rhabdomyosarcoma forms in cells that normally become muscle.

Types. The two common types of rhabdomyosarcoma in kids are:

  • Embryonal rhabdomyosarcoma (ERMS), which usually forms before age 6. It tends to show up in the head, neck, groin, or bladder area.
  • Alveolar rhabdomyosarcoma (ARMS), which affects kids of all ages. It tends to show up in the arms, legs, or trunk.

Symptoms. The most common symptoms of rhabdomyosarcoma are pain, a swollen lump, or both.

The other symptoms depend on where in the body the cancer forms. For example, tumors in the ear can cause earaches, headaches, and nosebleeds.

Risk factors. Some rare inherited conditions may raise a child's chance of getting rhabdomyosarcoma, such as:

  • Li-Fraumeni syndrome
  • Beckwith-Wiedemann syndrome
  • Neurofibromatosis type 1
  • C. Costello syndrome
  • Noonan syndrome

Treatment. Some ways to treat rhabdomyosarcoma are:

  • Surgery
  • Chemotherapy
  • Radiation
  • Stem cell transplant

Bone Cancer

Bone cancers make up about 3% of childhood cancers. There are two main types in kids: osteosarcoma and Ewing sarcoma.

Osteosarcoma is more common in teenagers. The cancer often shows up near the ends of the arm or leg bones. Bone pain is a common symptom.

Ewing sarcoma happens more often in younger teens. The symptoms are bone pain and swelling.

Surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy are treatments for osteosarcoma. Doctors use the same treatments for Ewing sarcoma, though a stem cell transplant may also be done in some cases.

Retinoblastoma

Retinoblastoma, which is a cancer of the eye, makes up about 2% of childhood cancers.

The cancer usually happens in young children, often around age 2. Doctors often spot the cancer when they see that something looks unusual about the child's eyes. For instance, the pupil of the eye -- the dark spot in the center -- might look white or pink when a doctor shines a light on it instead of the usual red color.

Treatments include surgery, radiation therapy, and laser therapy. Chemotherapy is another option. So is cryotherapy -- a treatment that involves killing cancer cells by freezing them.

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

American Cancer Society: "Key Statistics for Childhood Cancers," "Types of Cancer that Develop in Children," "Leukemia in Children," "What Is Childhood Leukemia?" "Signs and Symptoms of Childhood Leukemia," "Risk Factors for Childhood Leukemia," "Treating Childhood Leukemia," "What Is Neuroblastoma?" "Signs and Symptoms of Brain and Spinal Cord Tumors in Children," "Signs and Symptoms of Neuroblastoma," "Signs and Symptoms of Wilms Tumors," "Risk Factors for Brain and Spinal Cord Tumors in Children," "Risk Factors for Neuroblastoma," "Risk Factors for Wilms Tumors," "Treating Brain and Spinal Cord Tumors in Children," "Treating Neuroblastoma," "Risk Factors for Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma in Children," "Hodgkin Lymphoma Risk Factors," "Treating Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma in Children," "Treating Hodgkin Lymphoma," "What Is Rhabdomyosarcoma?" "Signs and Symptoms of Rhabdomyosarcoma," "Risk Factors for Rhabdomyosarcoma," "Treating Rhabdomyosarcoma."

National Cancer Institute: "Childhood cancers."

Johns Hopkins Medicine: "What Is Cancer?"

Moffitt Cancer Center: "Differences Between Hodgkin & Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma."

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