Childhood Cancer Awareness: What You Need to Know

Updated January 31, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

There is a concerted effort to raise awareness about childhood cancer. Though September is childhood cancer awareness month, there are always fundraising efforts. Many people know about the American Childhood Cancer Organization, and most people 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 or suburb recently, you may have seen a childhood cancer ribbon as a car magnet or a bumper sticker begging to cure childhood cancer.

Wondering Where To Turn When Things Feel Overwhelming?

Due to recent advances in medicine, 85% of childhood cancer patients can survive more than five years after diagnosis, compared to only fifty-eight percent in the 1970s. But we still have a long way to go. According to the American Childhood Cancer Society, one in 285 children will be diagnosed with cancer before their 20th birthday, and about 400,000 children worldwide are diagnosed with cancer every year - that’s one child every 80 seconds.

The American Childhood Cancer Organization has advocated for childhood cancer awareness worldwide with its Gold Ribbon Heroes Program and sponsoring fundraising events. These programs are essential to bringing childhood cancer statistics to light, such as those mentioned above. 

Most Common Childhood Cancers

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

  • Leukemia- This bone marrow and blood cancer is the most common, accounting for 28% of all cancers in children. 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 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. Usually, it 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 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 and rarely occur in children over age 10. Neuroblastoma tumors typically begin in the abdomen but can start anywhere.

Wondering Where To Turn When Things Feel Overwhelming?

  • 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, which typically begin higher. Spinal cord or brain tumors are the second most common forms of cancer, but there are several types of brain tumors that have 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 kidney. Having it in both kidneys is rare. 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 and stage of cancer. The most common treatments include 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 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 will have an entire team of doctors and specialists 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 you meet along the journey. 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 use 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 them in detail as well as the risk level associated with each and how the treatments can affect each other if performed concurrently.

Some of the most common side effects of nearly all cancer treatments include loss of appetite, energy loss, nausea, or hair loss. If the patient receives targeted drug therapies, the side effects will vary.

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 through blood tests.

Some childhood cancers can be caused by environmental factors, such as prolonged exposure to elevated radiation levels, but this is not as common. 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 different signs and 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 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.

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 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 are not childhood cancer.

Tests that can be used to confirm cancer include:

  • Biopsy

  • Lab tests

  • Ultrasounds

  • X-rays

  • CAT Scans

  • MRI

  • PET scan

  • Endoscopy

  • Bone marrow aspiration and biopsy

Not every patient will experience all these tests.

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

Conclusion And Parting Thoughts

Childhood cancer can be hard on the patient, the patient's family, and the child's care team. Awareness of childhood cancer's devastating effects 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. 

Therapy can help us manage our coping and grieving skills. If you are dealing with the devastating effects of childhood cancer firsthand, online therapy is a convenient and accessible way to get treatment. With online treatment, 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 attend sessions from the comfort of your home, or anywhere you have an internet connection, and you can reach out to your therapist via text, phone call, email, or instant message 24/7. They’ll get back to you as soon as they can.

One study showed that online therapy had “significant and clinically meaningful improvements in depression and anxiety scores relative to baseline that were observed post intervention at 12 weeks and sustained at program month 6.” If you want to learn more about how online treatment can help you cope, reach out to BetterHelp for more information.


Childhood cancer outcomes have improved significantly, but it remains a devastating diagnosis that too many families have to cope with. Talking to a licensed therapist can help patients, families, and medical professionals navigate the challenges that come with this heartbreaking diagnosis.

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