By Yolanda Smith, BPharm
Accepting a diagnosis of cancer is difficult for anyone, but even more challenging for children. There are several types of cancers that may affect young people, with leukemia and brain tumors being the most common. Some cancers that primarily affect adults have not been listed in this article. They may also affect children in rare cases.
Leukemia is the most common childhood cancer, accounting for almost a third of all cases. It is caused by the unregulated growth of blood progenitor cells in the bone marrow, spilling over into the blood. There are several types of leukemia, the most common being acute lymphocytic leukemia and acute myelogenous leukemia. These forms of leukemia appear acutely and progress rapidly. They therefore require timely treatment. Pain in the bones or joints is a characteristic symptom of leukemia, along with fatigue, weakness, pallor, fever and unexplained weight loss.
Tumors of the brain and other areas of the central nervous system account for approximately one quarter of all childhood cancers. There are many different types, but most of them originate in the lower regions of the brain. This includes the cerebellum or brain stem. Some arise in the spinal cord or in other areas. Symptoms linked to a brain tumor include headache, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, blurred vision and reduced coordination.
Neuroblastomas arise in the nerve cells during the period when the fetus is developing inside the womb. It affects infants and young children. Signs that may prompt further investigation and lead to a diagnosis of neuroblastoma may include pain and swelling in the abdomen, as well as fever.
Also known as nephroblastoma, Wilms tumors originate in the kidneys. They usually affect children less than 6 years of age. Signs that may be indicative of Wilms tumor include pain and swelling in the abdomen, fever, nausea and poor appetite.
Lymphoma begins in the lymphocytic cells of the immune system. Thus it usually arises in the lymph nodes or other lymph tissue around the body (e.g. tonsils, thymus). Characteristic symptoms of lymphomas include fever, sweats, fatigue, swollen lymph nodes and unexplained weight loss. Hodgkin’s lymphoma is rare in young children, while non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma is more common in children. It is still rare among infants and toddlers.
Rhabdomyosarcomas originate in the cells of the skeletal muscles anywhere in the body. Signs and symptoms of rhabdomyosarcoma include pain and inflammation in the affected area.
Retinoblastoma is a cancer of the retina of the eye. It usually affects young children, with the mean age being 2 years. It is usually detected by the abnormal appearance of the pupil of the affected eye when a light is shone into it. at such times the pupil appears white or pink, rather than the normal red.
Primary Bone Cancer
Cancer of the bone causes symptoms of pain and inflammation. It can occur at any age, although it is more common in older children and adolescents than young children. Osteosarcoma develops at sites where the bone is experiencing rapid growth, as in the legs or arms of children during their pubertal growth spurts. Ewing sarcoma is another soft tissue tumor which usually originates in the pelvic bones, chest wall or leg bones.
Treatment of Childhood Cancer
Pediatric oncology is a subspecialization in the medical field that focuses on the care of children with cancer. Children with cancer are usually treated at a center that specializes in pediatric oncology in patients up to the age of 20. There are various types of treatment, depending on the type and stage of cancer, and the individual characteristics of the patient. The treatment plan may include surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy, immunotherapy and stem cell transplants.
Reviewed by Liji Thomas, MD.
Last Updated: Sep 6, 2016