What Are the Different Types of Childhood Cancer?
Having a child diagnosed with cancer is the worst nightmare of every parent. Watching an innocent child fight childhood cancer is heart wrenching and can have a devastating effect on families.
The statistics on childhood cancer are shocking; every two minutes a child is diagnosed with cancer in the world, 1 in 285 children are diagnosed with cancer before the age of 20 in the U.S. and cancer is the second leading cause of death in children, after accidental injuries.
What Is Childhood Cancer?
Childhood cancer refers to cancer in children under the age of 15. Cancer among children can be quite different from adult cancers in terms of how it spreads, available treatment methods and their response to treatment.
Causes of Childhood Cancer
The exact cause of most childhood cancers remains unknown. However, it is believed that most childhood cancer cases are the result of gene mutation that causes abnormal cell growth resulting in cancer. Although certain environmental exposures play a vital role in causing cancer in adults, pinpointing environmental factors that trigger cancer in children has proven to be quite difficult.
Types of Childhood Cancer
There are more than 100 different types of cancers. Some of the most common types of cancers found in children:
- Brain Cancer
- Osteosarcoma or bone cancer
Leukemia, cancer of bone marrow cells, is the most common type of cancer diagnosed in children, accounting for 28% of all childhood cancer cases in the U.S.
Bone marrow produces red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets. White blood cells are responsible for fighting various types of infections. However, when a child has leukemia, their bone marrow produces immature and abnormal white cells that are unable to fight the invading infection.
Eventually, these mutated white blood cells outnumber the healthy blood cells within the body, resulting in infections and prolonged bleeding after injury. Leukemia has the potential to metastasize and spread from the bone marrow, through the blood vessels, to all parts of the body. Common symptoms:
- Constant fever
- Weakness and fatigue
- Frequent infections
- Weight loss
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Enlarged spleen and/or liver
- Bone aches and tenderness
- Excessive sweating
Motor skills, weakness or numbness in the limbs, or pain in the back may be a sign of spinal cancer. Read here about the causes, symptoms and more.
Lymphoma is characterized by abnormal cell division in the lymphatic system of the body. The lymphatic system consists of the lymph nodes, thymus gland, spleen and bone marrow. All these elements combined form the body’s germ-fighting network or immune system. Like leukemia, lymphoma also produces weak white blood cells that end up crowding the healthy lymphoid cells of the body. The two types of lymphoma – Hodgkin’s and non-Hodgkin’s - are responsible for 6% of the childhood cancer cases in the U.S. Common symptoms:
- Oval or round shaped painless swelling of the lymph nodes located in the neck, groin, and/or armpit region
- Persistent weakness and fatigue
- Itchy skin
- Breathing difficulties
- Unexplained weight loss
Childhood brain cancer is caused by abnormal cell growth in the brain or surrounding tissues. The tumors formed due to unnatural cell division can be either cancerous (malignant), or non-cancerous (benign). Four types of brain cancers are common in children and adolescents:
- Astrocytoma: cancer of the supportive brain tissues or astrocytes
- Brain-stem gliomas: cancer at the base of the brain or spinal cord
- Ependymoma: cancer of the ependymal cells in the lining of the brain’s ventricles where the cerebrospinal fluids are produced
- Primitive neuroectodermal tumors: cancer of the primitive nerve cells of the brain
As brain tumors grow, they apply pressure and alter the function of surrounding nervous tissue, which can result in symptoms such as headaches, nausea, seizures, blurred vision and memory problems.
Neuroblastoma is characterized by abnormal growth of immature nerve cells, mostly in the adrenal glands located on top of the kidneys. However, it can also develop in the chest, abdomen, neck, or the spinal region. 90% of the cases of neuroblastoma are found in children under the age of 5. Common symptoms:
- Abdominal pain
- Diarrhea or constipation
- Chest pain
- Drooping eyelids
- Formation of lumps under the skin
- Protruding eyeballs
- Back pain
- Bone aches and tenderness
Rhabdomyosarcoma is cancer of the soft skeletal muscle tissues. It can also begin in the hollow organs such as the bladder and uterus. Although it is rare, it is more prevalent in children than in adults. Symptoms of rhabdomyosarcoma include swelling or lumps in the arms or legs, blood in the urine with irregular bowel movements, headaches and nosebleeds.
Bone cancer is initiated by the formation of painful lumps on bones that restrict the growth of normal bones and hinders stability. It typically affects the pelvis and the longer bones of the body like the arms and legs. Bone cancers can potentially spread to the lungs and other bones and soft tissues. Common symptoms:
- Bone pain that comes and goes
- Pain that does not respond to pain medication
- Swelling and tenderness around the affected area
- Weakened bone that fractures easily
Treatment for Childhood Cancer
Cancer treatment depends on the type of cancer and how advanced it is. The common types of treatments are chemotherapy, radiation therapy, surgery, immunotherapy and stem cell transplants.
Any of these procedures can be prescribed as a standalone treatment, in combination with one another, or as palliative care if the cancer is too advanced. Some of these treatments have short-term and long-term side effects. It’s important to discuss the potential risks with a pediatric oncologist.
Having a child diagnosed with cancer can be very hard, but parents need to stay focused and keep their child motivated. It takes a combined effort of doctors, parents and the child to overcome cancer. Every year, there are breakthroughs in childhood cancer research and treatment. With proper treatment and rehabilitation, your child can hopefully live a very long and productive life.