Even though childhood cancers account for around 1% of all cancer new cancer cases every year, the diagnosis of cancer in a child can be a frightening and devastating experience for parents and children alike. It is estimated by the American Cancer Society that just over 10,000 children will have been diagnosed with this disease by the end of 2015 — and knowing more about this disease can help patients and their families begin to cope.
Childhood Cancer Defined
Cancer is a disease marked by the unusual and rapid reproduction of malignant cells and the invasion of those cells into other body tissues. As the cancer cells continue to grow and reproduce, they can sap the body’s energy, weaken its immune system and even destroy other cells and tissues. But although the basic cancer disease process is the same between adults and children, there are some differences that should be taken into account, including the types of cancer.
Common Types of Childhood Cancer
The most common types of childhood cancer include:
- Tumors in the brain or central nervous system
- Wilms tumor
- Bone cancer
Leukemia, brain tumors and lymphoma alone account for over half of all pediatric cancers.
The Causes of Childhood Cancer
One thing that differentiates childhood cancers from the cancers of adulthood is that they usually do not involve lifestyle issues as a cause. For adults, being overweight, smoking or drinking, or occupational exposure to a variety of toxins can lead to cancer. In children, cancer is more likely to be caused by changes (mutations) in the DNA that often happen at random and occur either at the time of conception or when the baby is developing before birth. Such genetic changes can include the stimulation of oncogenes, which cause cells to multiply and spread or the depression of tumor suppressor genes which prevent this multiplication from taking place.
Who is at Risk?
Since many of the DNA changes which cause childhood cancer happen randomly, there are no discernible risk factors for this condition. However, some things have been associated with an increased risk in cancer development, including:
- Family history of cancer (in about 5% of cases, children develop cancer due to an inherited gene mutation).
- Maternal use of alcohol, tobacco or drugs
- Exposure to radiation and other toxic substances either before or after birth
Signs and Symptoms of Childhood Cancer
Depending upon the type of childhood cancer that a child develops, early signs and symptoms may include:
- A lump or swelling in one particular area of the body
- Easy and/or unexplained bruising
- Frequent infections
- Localized pain or soreness that does not go away
- Decreased energy level and unexplained fatigue
- Swollen glands
- Unexplained fever
- Visual disturbances
- Headaches, which may or may not come with nausea and vomiting
- Unexplained loss of weight, in spite of normal diet and activity levels
Because some of these signs and symptoms can indicate other illnesses, they may escape the notice of doctors during routine checkups.
Diagnosing Childhood Cancers
Since childhood cancer is such a rare occurrence, there are no specific screening tests which can diagnose cancer in pediatric patients. Diagnosis is often based on patient signs and symptoms and if a doctor suspects that cancer is a possibility, he or she will investigate further with any of the following tests:
- Imaging tests like MRI’s or X-rays
- Biopsy, where tissue samples are removed from the body for testing
Treatment for Childhood Cancers
Treatment for childhood cancer is similar to that of adults and largely centers around some combination of radiation therapy, chemotherapy, surgery, immunotherapy and stem cell replacement. Children often have cancers that affect rapidly reproducing cells, which chemotherapy is particularly good at treating and their bodies, being younger, appear to be able to tolerate the chemo better. They are still subject to side effects of chemo, however, including nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and hair loss.
Because children with cancer have special needs and concerns while battling this disease, they often are treated at centers which are members of the Children’s Oncology Group, staffed with pediatric oncologists, surgeons, pathologists and nurses all specializing just in the treatment of childhood cancer. Sometimes treatment will also take place in a specialized unit of the hospital.
There are plenty of ways to support a patient at home. These include:
- Good nutrition and hydration as tolerated
- Allow child to get plenty of rest
- Alternating periods of rest and activity as tolerated
- Adequate pain control
- Emotional support for child
- Use of hats, scarves, etc., in case of hair loss
- Support groups to help cope with the emotional/mental costs of cancer
The prognosis for childhood cancer is improving. To illustrate this point, in the 1970’s, only around 58% of pediatric cancer patients lived for more than 5 years after their diagnosis. Now, thanks to advancements in treatment and a better understanding of the unique ways that cancer manifests itself in children, that number is now up to 80% as of 2015.
In short, childhood cancer can feel like a devastating diagnosis, but advancements in treatment have improved the prognosis of children with this condition and resources like support groups can help patients and their families get through this emotionally difficult time.