Childhood Cancer Awareness: What To Know

Medically reviewed by Melissa Guarnaccia, LCSW
Updated June 3, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, aiming to bring awareness to childhood cancer's unique symptoms and presentations. Regardless of a child’s age, they can contract many of the same types of cancer as adults, so knowing how to catch symptoms early, get childhood cancer diagnosed, and find support can be essential for families facing this challenge. Even if you are not a parent or caregiver of a child, understanding childhood cancer can help you offer visibility to this cause in your community.

This article explores childhood cancer care, risk factors, leading causes of pediatric cancers, effective treatments, survival rates, and more. 

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How prevalent is childhood cancer? 

Due to recent advances in medicine, 85% of childhood cancer patients can survive more than five years after diagnosis, compared to only 58% in the 1970s. However, progress is still being made. According to the American Childhood Cancer Society, one in 285 children will receive a cancer diagnosis before their 20th birthday, and about 400,000 children worldwide are diagnosed with cancer every year - one child every 80 seconds.

The American Childhood Cancer Organization has advocated for childhood cancer awareness worldwide with its Gold Ribbon Heroes Program and sponsorship of fundraising events. These programs, such as those mentioned above, can be essential to bringing childhood cancer statistics to light and finding better treatment options. 

Most common childhood cancers

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


Bone marrow and blood cancers are the most common, accounting for 28% of all cancers in children. There are many types of leukemia, but the two most found in children are acute myelogenous leukemia (AML) and acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL).

Bone cancer

There are two types of bone cancer; together, they make up about 3% of childhood cancers. The first type, osteosarcoma, is most common in teenage children and adolescents. Symptoms are often noticeable in the arms or legs, such as feeling deep bone pain. Ewing sarcoma is the second 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.


Eye cancer affects 2% of children with cancer. Often, this cancer occurs when a child is a toddler and is rarely found in children over six. This kind of cancer has been detected accidentally in children due to a camera flash showing a white eye instead of a red eye in a picture. 


6% of childhood cancers are neuroblastomas. This cancer forms in the nerve cells of developing embryos. The tumors present themselves in infants and young children and rarely occur in children over 10. Neuroblastoma tumors typically begin in the abdomen but can start anywhere.

Brain and spinal cord tumors

Over a quarter of all cancers in children are brain tumors. These tumors often start low in the brain, unlike adult brain tumors, which typically begin higher. Spinal cord or brain tumors are the second most common forms of cancer, but several types of brain tumors have vastly different outlooks.


As 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 kidney. Having it in both kidneys is rare. Wilms tumors begin when children are between three and four years old and account for only 5% of childhood cancers.


Lymphoma attacks the immune system and usually begins in lymph nodes, or may present itself as liver cancer. 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 makes up 3% of childhood cancers, with non-Hodgkin's accounting for 5%.


Treatments for childhood cancers

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

The most effective treatment for childhood cancer is chemotherapy. This chemical medication is designed to affect quickly growing cells, and most childhood cancers are aggressive. Children benefit from chemotherapy because their bodies can bounce back better than adults in response to treatment and can handle higher doses of chemo drugs. 

While chemotherapy reactions can be intense, radiation can be worse for children. The long-term severe side effects of radiation are more significant for children than those of chemo.

A patient with childhood cancer can often have an entire team of specialized doctors and pediatric nurse specialists to monitor and treat them according to the latest information from clinical trials. The professionals on the team may include the following: 

  • 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 and your child meet during treatment. Childhood cancer patients are often treated at a children's hospital or cancer center. Childhood cancer centers offer the most up-to-date treatments and research, conduct clinical trials, and use state-of-the-art technology.

Side effects of cancer treatments for children

Each treatment for childhood cancer has different side effects. The team of doctors working on the patient can explain them in detail, the risk level associated with each, and how the treatments can affect each other if performed concurrently.

Cancer treatments' most common side effects include loss of appetite, energy loss, nausea, or hair loss. If the patient receives targeted drug therapies, the side effects can vary. 

On addition to side effects from the treatment of a child’s cancer, survivors may be at an increased risk of developing cancer caused by human papillomavirus (HPV). 

Causes of childhood cancer

Unlike adult cancers, which may be related to lifestyle factors and long-term habits, childhood cancer types 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. These genes may be able to be spotted with blood and genetic testing for cancer predisposition. Genes are not always linked to cancer diagnoses, but these tests can increase the chance of catching it early. 

Environmental factors, such as prolonged exposure to elevated radiation levels, can cause some childhood cancers. There is also some evidence that having parents who smoke cigarettes has a link to cancer risk in children, but this evidence has not been conclusive.

Signs and symptoms of childhood cancer

There are many symptoms of various childhood cancers. There is no widely accepted screening test for childhood cancer like there is for genetic diseases. Signs and symptoms are similar to common injuries or illnesses that don't require emergency medical care or can be treated at home, which means that childhood cancer can go undetected for extended periods in some cases. 

Some of the most common signs may include the following: 

  • Lumps or swelling in unusual places

  • Loss of energy

  • Unexplained loss of skin tone

  • Chronic pain

  • Limping

  • A fever that won't go away

  • Frequent headaches or migraines

  • Sudden vision problems or loss

  • Rapid weight loss

If your child exhibits these persistent symptoms, make an appointment with their pediatrician for advice and recommendations. These symptoms are often related to common illnesses or injuries and may not be childhood cancer.

Tests that can be used to confirm cancer include:

  • Biopsies

  • Lab tests

  • Ultrasounds

  • X-rays

  • CAT Scans

  • MRIs

  • PET scans

  • Endoscopies

  • Bone marrow aspiration and biopsy

Tests can depend on symptoms and the doctor's discretion; not every child will experience every test. 

Childhood cancers can be staged from zero to four. Stage four is the most serious cancer stage because the cancer cells have spread the farthest throughout the body. The higher the cancer stage, the more rapidly the cancer cells may grow and spread. In these cases, cancer may be present in multiple organs.

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Mental health support options for pediatric cancer diagnosis and childhood cancer survivors

According to the World Health Organization, in high-income countries where intensive treatments like radiation therapy and stem cell transplants are generally reachable, as well as follow-up care, more than 80% of children and adolescents with cancer are cured. However, in lower-income countries, less than 30% receive the cancer care they require to be cured after developing cancer. 

Childhood cancer can be challenging for the patient, the patient's family members, and the child's care team. Awareness of childhood cancer's devastating effects can be painful for families and doctors. It is common for families to go to therapy together or individually to receive psychosocial support. Some doctors may also seek counseling to cope with their experiences. 

Therapy can offer support with coping and grieving. If you are dealing with the devastating effects of childhood cancer firsthand, online therapy can be a convenient way to get treatment. With online treatment through a platform like BetterHelp, you don't have to worry about being on a waiting list or making time to commute to an office for an in-person visit. You can attend sessions from the comfort of your home or anywhere you have an internet connection, and you can reach out to your therapist via phone, video, or chat messaging. 

A recent study on online therapy found that it had significant and clinically meaningful improvements in depression and anxiety scores relative to baseline observed post-intervention at 12 weeks and sustained at program month six. 


Childhood cancer outcomes have improved significantly, but these conditions can have devastating impacts on families and the children impacted. Talking to a licensed therapist can help patients, families, and medical professionals navigate the challenges of this diagnosis. Consider contacting a licensed therapist online or in your area for further support.
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