About Pediatric Cancers

  • Steven Ambrusko, MD, MS

Childhood cancer is rare, yet it remains the leading cause of death from disease for children age 14 and younger with about 12,000 new cases diagnosed each year. Among the 12 major cancer types that afflict children, leukemias and cancers of the brain and central nervous system account for more than half of all new cases.

The Good News

As devastating as a cancer diagnosis is to any family, you have every reason to hope for a cure. While the incidence of pediatric cancers has risen slightly over the past decades, the number of children who survive their disease increased significantly. The five-year survival rate for all pediatric cancers has improved from 63 percent in the mid-1970s to 83 percent today. This improvement is due to significant treatment advances, which result in a cure or long-term remission for a substantial portion of patients.

Types of Pediatric Cancers

  • Leukemias: Blood cell cancers account for one-third of all childhood cancers. The most common types in children are acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) and acute myelogenous leukemia (AML).
  • Brain and Spinal Cord Tumors: The most common solid tumors in children are gliomas and medulloblastomas.
  • Lymphomas: Both Hodgkin and non-Hodgkin lymphomas (cancers of the lymph system) affect children.
  • Retinoblastoma: This cancer affects the eye’s retina.
  • Sarcomas: This disease includes bone cancers such as osteosarcoma, Ewing sarcoma and soft tissue sarcomas. The most common type of sarcoma in children is rhabdomyosarcoma, a cancer of muscle, tendon, cartilage or bone.
  • Wilms' Tumor: A form of kidney cancer that typically occurs in children. 
  • Neuroblastoma:  A cancer of the peripheral nervous system that is common in children. 
  • Germ Cell Tumors: These tumors originate from germ cells, typically in the testes or ovaries.

Symptoms of Pediatric Cancers

Early signs or symptoms of childhood cancer are difficult to recognize because they may also indicate far more common illnesses and injuries. Children often get bumps and bruises or feel sick. Parents should ensure kids get regular medical checkups and seek attention for a symptom that doesn’t go away, such as:

  • An unusual lump or swelling
  • Unexplained paleness or lack of energy
  • Easy bruising
  • Ongoing pain in one area
  • Limping
  • Unexplained fever or illness that doesn’t go away
  • Frequent headaches, often with vomiting
  • Sudden eye or vision changes
  • Sudden unexplained weight loss