Childhood Cancer Awareness: What You Need to Know

Updated August 31, 2022 by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Childhood cancer is something that surrounds us all every day. There are always many fundraising efforts, September is childhood cancer awareness month, a number of people may know about the American Childhood Cancer Organization, and everyone in the western United States may be familiar with the Nevada Childhood Cancer Foundation. If you have driven down a street in a busy city recently, you may have seen the childhood cancer ribbon as a car magnet, or a bumper sticker begging to cure childhood cancer.

Wondering Where To Turn When You Want Help?

Diseases like childhood leukemia are some of the most devastating diseases known to man. In the United States, nearly 16,000 people under the age of 21 are diagnosed with cancer annually. Twenty-five percent or just over 3,000 of the children do not survive their diseases. On a global scale, there are a quarter of a million new cases of childhood cancer diagnosed annually. This means that 700 children are told every day that they have cancer.

The American Childhood Cancer Organization has advocated for childhood cancer awareness across the world with their Gold Ribbon Heroes Program and sponsoring fundraising events. These programs are essential to bringing childhood cancer statistics to light such as the fact that one new drug has been approved in the last twenty years to treat childhood cancer. For children under 14 years old, cancer is the #1 killer. There are currently half a million children fighting cancer all over the world, and yes, the National Cancer Institute's budget gives only four percent to pediatric funding.

Already due to recent advances in medicine, over eighty percent of childhood cancer patients can survive more than five years after diagnosis compared to only fifty-eight percent in the 1970's. Imagine the additional impact funding could have to search and development of cancer treatments.

Most Common Childhood Cancers

According to the American Cancer Society, the most common childhood cancers include:

  • Leukemia- This cancer of the bone marrow and blood is the most common. Roughly 1/3 of all childhood cancer diagnoses were for Leukemia. There are many types of Leukemia, but the two most commonly found in children are acute myelogenous leukemia (AML) and acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL).
  • Bone Cancer-There are two types of bone cancer, and together they make up about three percent of childhood cancers. The first type, osteosarcoma, is most common in young adults and teens. Symptoms are usually noticeable in the arms or legs. Ewing sarcoma is the second main type of bone cancer and is less common. This type of sarcoma is found in young teens and is most common in hip bones and the chest wall.
  • Retinoblastoma-Eye cancer affects two percent of children with childhood cancer and usually occurs when a child is a toddler and is almost never found in children over the age of six. This kind of cancer has been detected accidentally in children due to a camera flash showing a white eye in a picture instead of red.
  • Neuroblastoma- Six percent of childhood cancers are neuroblastomas. This cancer forms in the nerve cells of developing embryos. The tumors present themselves in infants and young children, mostly under the age of ten. Neuroblastoma tumors typically begin in the abdomen but can start anywhere.

Wondering Where To Turn When You Want Help?

  • Brain/Spinal Cord Tumors- Just over a quarter of all childhood cancers are brain tumors. These tumors usually start low in the brain, unlike adult brain tumors that usually begin higher. Spinal cord or brain tumors are the second most common forms of cancer, but there are several types of brain tumors with vastly different outlooks.
  • Rhabdomyosarcoma-A skeletal muscle cancer, Rhabdomyosarcoma can begin anywhere in the body and is the most common soft tissue cancer in children accounting for 3% of all childhood cancers.
  • Wilms Tumor- The Wilms tumor grows in one of the kidneys and will very rarely present in both kidneys. Wilms tumors begin when children are between three and four years old and account for only five percent of childhood cancers.
  • Lymphomas- This cancer attacks the immune system and usually begins in lymph nodes. Lymphoma can also infect bone marrow and spread to other organs. Both Hodgkin's and non-Hodgkin lymphomas can occur in adults and children. Hodgkin lymphoma is three percent of childhood cancers with non-Hodgkin's accounting for five percent.

Treatments For Childhood Cancers

The treatment plan for childhood cancers varies based on the type of cancer and stage the cancer is in. The most common treatments involve surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. Other therapies used in cancer treatment include stem-cell transplants, targeted therapy, immunotherapy, and others.

The most effective treatment overall for childhood cancer is chemotherapy. This drug is designed to affect quickly growing cells, and most childhood cancers are extremely aggressive. Children benefit because their bodies can bounce back better than adults in response to treatment and can handle higher dosages of chemo drugs. While chemotherapy reactions can be intense, radiation can be worse for children. The serious long-term side-effects associated with radiation are greater than those associated with chemo.

A patient with childhood cancer will have an entire team of doctors and specialists that are going to monitor and treat the child. The professionals most likely to be on the team include:

  • Pediatric oncologist
  • Pediatric surgeons
  • Radiation oncologists
  • Pediatric oncology nurses
  • Nurse Practitioners
  • Physician assistants
  • Physical therapists
  • Nutritionist
  • Social workers
  • Psychologists

There may be many other health professionals including hospital workers that you meet along the journey as well. Most children with cancer will be treated at a children's hospital or children's cancer center. Childhood cancer centers offer the most up to date treatments and research, conduct clinical trials, and state of the art technology.

Side Effects Of Cancer Treatments For Children

Each treatment for childhood cancer will have different side-effects. The team of doctors working on the patient should be able to explain in detail those side-effects, the risk level associated with each, and how the treatments can affect each other if performed concurrently.

Some of the most common side effects associated with nearly all cancer treatments include loss of appetite, loss of energy, nausea, or hair loss. If the patient is receiving targeted drug therapies, the side-effects will vary with each.

Causes Of Childhood Cancer

Unlike adult cancers which can have a lot to do with lifestyle and long-term habits, childhood cancers are mostly related to DNA changes or inherited mutations. Children who receive a mutated gene from a parent are more likely to have certain types of childhood cancer and can be tested for through blood tests.

Some childhood cancers can be caused by environmental factors, such as prolonged exposure to elevated levels of radiation, but this is not as common. There is also some evidence of parent's and cigarette smoking having a link to cancer risk in children. However, this evidence has not been conclusive according to the American Cancer Society.

Signs And Symptoms Of Childhood Cancers

There are many different signs and symptoms of the various childhood cancers. There is no widely accepted screening test for childhood cancer like there is for genetic diseases such as Down's Syndrome. Signs and symptoms also are very similar to common injuries or illnesses that don't require emergency medical care or can be treated at home, which also means that sometimes childhood cancer can go undetected for extended periods of time.

Some of the most common signs include:

  • Lumps or swelling in unusual places
  • Loss of energy
  • Unexplained loss of skin tone
  • Chronic pain
  • Limping
  • Fever that won't go away
  • Frequent headaches or migraines
  • Sudden vision problems or loss
  • Rapid weight loss

If your child is exhibiting these kinds of persistent symptoms, you should make an appointment with their pediatrician for advice and a recommendation. Many times, these symptoms are related to common illnesses or injuries and are not childhood cancer. However, any lumps, cysts or moles can be biopsied to check for cancer cells. (Source)

Other tests that can be used to confirm cancer include:

  • Lab tests
  • Ultrasounds
  • X-rays
  • CAT Scans
  • MRI
  • PET scan
  • Endoscopy
  • Bone Marrow aspiration and biopsy

Not every patient will experience all these tests. However, most childhood cancer patients will have frequent lab work done, and x-rays completed to monitor the growth of tumors. (Source)

Childhood cancers can be stage 0-4. Stage four is the most serious stage of cancer because it has spread the farthest from where it started. The higher the cancer stage, the more rapidly the cancer cells tend to grow and spread.

Conclusion & Parting Thoughts

Childhood cancer can be hard on the patient, patient's family, and the care team of the child. Being aware of the devastating effects of childhood cancer can be agonizing for families and doctors. It is common for families to go to therapy together and individually or for doctors to seek outside counseling as well. Cancer is the second leading cause of death in children from infancy to age 14, and sometimes, a licensed therapist can help us to manage our coping and grieving skills. Begin talking to someone today at BetterHelp.

For Additional Help & Support With Your Concerns

Speak with a Licensed Therapist
The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.