Childhood cancer is rare. Childhood cancers make up less than 1% of all cancers diagnosed each year.After accidents, cancer is the second leading cause of death in children ages 1 to 14. Still, as a parent, you need to be aware of the symptoms of childhood cancer.
Every cell in the body has a system that controls its growth, interaction with other cells, and even its life span. When certain cells lose that control and grow in a way that the body can no longer regulate, it’s called cancer.
The types of cancers that develop in children are often different from the types that develop in adults. Childhood cancers are often the result of DNA changes in cells that take place very early in life, sometimes even before birth. Unlike many cancers in adults, childhood cancers are not strongly linked to lifestyle or environmental risk factors.
Observe your child for any sudden, persistent changes in health or behavior as listed below. Since most of the symptoms of cancer can also be attributed to benign conditions, the diagnosis of cancer can be a long process.
Signs of Childhood Cancer
Continued, unexplained weight loss
Headaches, often with early morning vomiting
Increased swelling or persistent pain in bones, joints, back, or legs
Lump or mass, especially in the abdomen, neck, chest, pelvis, or armpits
Development of excessive bruising, bleeding, or rash
A whitish color behind the pupil
Nausea which persists or vomiting without nausea
Constant tiredness or noticeable paleness
Eye or vision changes which occur suddenly and persist
Recurrent or persistent fevers of unknown origin
Different kinds of cancer have different signs, symptoms, treatments, and outcomes, depending on the type of cell involved and how fast the cells grow.
All kinds of cancer progress in the same way — cells grow out of control, develop abnormal sizes and shapes, exceed their typical boundaries inside the body, and destroy neighboring cells. ln time, cancerous cells can spread (metastasize) to other organs and tissues.
As cancer cells grow, they demand more and more of the body’s nutrition. Cancer takes child’s strength, destroys organs and bones, and weakens the body’s defenses against other illnesses.
In children, a genetic condition, such as Down syndrome, can sometimes increase the risk of cancer. Kids who have had chemotherapy or radiation treatment for cancer are more likely to get cancer again. Once cancer has been diagnosed, it’s important for parents to seek help from a medical center that specializes in pediatric oncology.
Can Childhood Cancers Be Prevented?
Unlike many cancers of adults, lifestyle-related risk factors (such as smoking) don’t influence a child’s risk of getting cancer. A few environmental factors, such as radiation exposure, have been linked with childhood cancer risk. But, in many cases exposure to radiation might be unavoidable, such as if the child needs radiation therapy to treat another cancer. If your child does develop cancer, it is important to know that it is extremely unlikely there is anything you or your child could have done to prevent it.
The treatment of cancer in children can include surgery (to remove cancerous cells or tumors), chemotherapy (the use of medical drugs to kill cancer cells), radiation (the use of radiant energy to kill cancer cells), and bone marrow transplant.
Doctors may use one or more of these treatments for a child who has cancer. The type of treatment needed depends on the child’s age, the type of cancer, and how severe the cancer is.
Chemotherapy (chemo) is medicine that can eliminate cancer cells in the body. Kids with cancer can take the chemotherapy medications intravenously (through a vein) or orally (by mouth). Some forms of chemotherapy can be given intrathecally or into the spinal fluid.
All of the medicines used in chemotherapy carry the risk of both short-term and long-term problems. In the short term after getting chemotherapy, a child might have:
- hair loss
- fatigue (tiredness)
- abnormal bleeding
- kidney damage
- menstrual problems
Because chemotherapy destroys bone marrow (the spongy tissue inside some bones that helps the immune system by making blood cells), it can increase the risk of infections. Some drugs irritate the bladder and may cause bleeding into the urine, hearing loss, and liver damage. Others may cause heart and skin problems.
Longer-term effects can include infertility, growth problems, organ damage, or increased risk of other cancers. Doctors always take side effects into account before giving chemotherapy and may use medicines to protect patients against as many of the side effects as possible.
Radiation is one of the most common treatments for cancer. A child who receives radiation therapy is treated with a stream of high-energy particles or waves that destroy or damage cancer cells. Many types of childhood cancer are treated with radiation along with chemotherapy or surgery. Radiation has many potential side effects (such as increased risk of future cancer and infertility).
Bone Marrow Transplants
Kids with certain types of cancer may receive bone marrow transplants. If a child has a type of cancer that affects the function of blood cells, a bone marrow transplant (along with chemo to kill the defective cells) may allow new, healthy cells to grow. Bone marrow transplants are also sometimes used to treat cancer that does not involve blood cells because they allow doctors to use higher doses of chemotherapy than a child would normally be able to take.
Coping With Cancer
The main goal when treating kids with cancer is to cure them. This takes priority over everything else, even if it means unwanted side effects as a result of treatment. Thankfully, many medicines and therapies can make kids more comfortable while undergoing treatment for cancer.
The diagnosis and treatment of childhood cancers takes time, and there are both short-term and long-term side effects. But thanks to medical advances, more and more kids with cancer are finishing successful treatment, leaving hospitals, and growing up just like everybody else. Today, more than 80% of all children with cancer live 5 years or more.