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.
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 a person's strength, destroys organs and bones, and weakens the body's defenses against other illnesses.
Most of the time, doctors don't know why kids get cancer. The things that cause cancer in kids are usually not the same ones that cause cancer in adults, such as smoking or exposure to environmental toxins. 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.
In most cases, however, childhood cancers come from random mutations (changes) in the genes of growing cells. Because these changes happen randomly and unpredictably, there is no effective way to prevent them.
Sometimes, a doctor might spot early symptoms of cancer at regular checkups. However, some symptoms of cancer (such as fever, swollen glands, frequent infections, anemia, or bruises) can happen with other childhood infections or conditions that are more common than cancer. Because of this, both doctors and parents might suspect other childhood illnesses when cancer symptoms first appear.
Once cancer has been diagnosed, it's important for parents to seek help from a medical center that specializes in pediatric oncology (treatment of childhood cancer).
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.
For children with leukemia or lymphoma, surgery is not usually the main treatment. This is because leukemia and lymphoma involve the circulatory system and the lymphatic system, two systems that are located throughout the body. This makes it hard to treat these cancers by operating on just one area.
However, in children with solid tumors that haven't spread to other parts of the body, surgery can often effectively remove cancer when used in combination with chemotherapy and/or radiation.
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. The drugs enter the bloodstream and work to kill cancer cells throughout the body.
How long chemo lasts and the type and number of different drugs used depends on the type of cancer and how well a child's body responds to the treatment. Every child's treatment is different, so a child may receive daily, weekly, or monthly chemotherapy treatments. The doctor also may recommend cycles of treatment, which allow the body to rest and recover between periods of chemo.
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:
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).
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.
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.
When possible, kids should be involved with their own cancer treatment. Talk to your child in language he or she will understand and explain the facts about the specific type of cancer and its effects. However, when cancer affects younger children — toddlers and those younger than age 4 — simply telling them that they are "sick" and need "medicine" to get better may be enough of an explanation. For all age groups, the goal is to prevent fear and misunderstanding.
Many kids might feel guilty, as if the cancer is somehow their fault. Psychologists, social workers, and other members of the cancer treatment team can be a great help in reassuring and helping them with their feelings.
If your child is diagnosed with cancer, look to the cancer treatment team to help guide your family through the pain, uncertainty, and disruptions caused by cancer. If necessary, the team can also contact or visit your child's school to explain the diagnosis to teachers and classmates. Replacing fear and misunderstanding with compassion and information is an important part of helping kids with cancer cope with the illness.
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.
Reviewed by: Rupal Christine Gupta, MD
Date reviewed: June 2014
|Starlight Starbright Children's Foundation The Starlight Starbright Children's Foundation is a nonprofit organization that offers entertainment, education, social networking, and other activities for seriously ill children and their families.|
|Children's Brain Tumor Foundation (CBTF) The CBTF funds research on pediatric brain tumors and provides resources, newsletters, and a support group for parents.|
|CureSearch for Children's Cancer CureSearch for Children's Cancer supports and sponsors research and treatment for childhood cancers.|
|OncoLink OncoLink provides patients and professionals with cancer information, support, and resources.|
|American Cancer Society The American Cancer Society is the nationwide community-based voluntary health organization dedicated to preventing cancer, saving lives and diminishing suffering from cancer through research, education, advocacy, and service. Call:(800) ACS-2345|
|Alex's Lemonade Stand Foundation for Childhood Cancer A unique foundation that evolved from a young cancer patient's front-yard lemonade stand to a nationwide fundraising movement to find a cure for pediatric cancer.|
|Cancer Basics Get the basics on cancer and cancer treatments in this article.|
|Steroids and Cancer Treatment If your doctor prescribed steroids as part of your treatment for an illness, don't worry. It's not the illegal, doping scandal kind of steroid. Get the details in this article for teens.|
|Balancing Academics and Serious Illness When your child has a serious or chronic illness, it's hard to think beyond the next treatment. But with planning and communication, you can help your child balance treatment and academics.|
|When a Friend Has Cancer When a friend has cancer, you might not know what to do or say. Get some ideas in this article for kids.|
|Coping With Cosmetic Effects of Cancer Treatment It's normal for kids to have hair loss, skin changes, or weight gain during treatment. This article offers tips for helping kids feel better about their appearance.|
|Can I Have Children After Cancer Treatments? When chemotherapy and other treatments attack cancer cells, they can affect some of the body's healthy cells too. As a teen, you'll want to know what this can mean to your fertility.|
|What Is Cancer? When kids get cancer, it can often be treated and cured. Find out more in this article for kids.|
|Lymphoma Although cancers that originate in the body's lymphatic tissues are the third most common type of cancer in children, most recover from lymphoma.|
|Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL) ALL is the most common type of leukemia, affecting nearly 75% of kids who have this cancer of the blood cells. With treatment, most recover.|
|Brain and Nervous System Cancers These cancers are the second most common type of cancer in children. When discovered early, they are usually treatable.|
|Cancer Center Cancer is a serious illness that needs special treatment. Find out more about how kids can cope with cancer.|
|Chemotherapy Chemotherapy medications are used to treat cancer throughout the body by killing actively dividing cells. Learn more about chemo.|
|Chemotherapy Chemotherapy is a big word for treatment with medicines used to help people who have cancer. This medicine kills the cancer cells that are making the person sick.|
|Life After Hospitalization: Helping Kids With Cancer Adjust Learn how to help kids get back into the swing of being at home and going to school.|
|Leukemia Leukemia refers to cancers of the white blood cells (also called leukocytes or WBCs). With the proper treatment, the outlook for kids who are diagnosed with leukemia is quite good.|
|Radiation Therapy Radiation therapy, also called radiotherapy, irradiation, or X-ray therapy, is one of the most common forms of cancer treatment.|
|Radiation Therapy Radiation therapy is a treatment that can help people with cancer. Learn what's involved and how it works.|
|Radiation Therapy More than half of all people with cancer are treated with radiation therapy. Get the facts on radiation therapy, including what it is, what to expect, and how to cope with side effects.|
|Types of Cancer Teens Get While cancer is rare in teens, some types are more likely to affect young people. Learn about these types of cancer, including warning signs, symptoms, and treatments.|
|Some Kinds of Cancer Kids Get Cancer mostly affects adults, but there are some kinds that kids get, too. Find out more in this article for kids.|
|Osteosarcoma Osteosarcoma is the most common type of bone cancer. Boys are more likely to have osteosarcoma than girls, and most cases of osteosarcoma involve the knee.|
|Brain Tumors Brain tumors are the second most common group of childhood cancers. Treatment requires a very specialized plan involving a team of medical specialists.|
|Chemotherapy Chemotherapy, or chemo, is the use of medications to treat cancer. This article explains how chemo works and what to expect when getting treatment.|
|Balancing Schoolwork and Hospital Stays Every student finds it hard to stay on top of schoolwork sometimes. So what happens when you have to miss a lot of school? This article for teens offers tips and advice.|
|When Cancer Keeps You Home Sometimes kids who have cancer need to stay home instead of going to school and doing their normal stuff. Find out why and what kids can do in the meantime.|
|Cancer: Readjusting to Home and School If you've just finished a long hospital stay, you may have questions about reconnecting with friends and family. Get answers in this article for teens.|
|Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML) Among kids with leukemia, 20% have this form of the blood cancer. With treatment, most recover.|
|Cancer Center Visit our Cancer Center for teens to get information and advice on treating and coping with cancer.|
|Dealing With Cancer It's unusual for teens to have cancer, but it can happen. The good news is that most will survive and return to their everyday lives. Learn about how to cope if you or someone you know has cancer.|
|Cancer Center From treatments and prevention to coping with the emotional aspects of cancer, the Cancer Center provides comprehensive information that parents need.|
What to expect when coming to Akron Children's
For healthcare providers and nurses
Residency & Fellowships, Medical Students, Nursing and Allied Health
For prospective employees and career-seekers
Our online community that provides inspirational stories and helpful information.