Childhood cancer: What to watch for
9/16/2021 by Leslie Kummer, M.D., M.P.H.
September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, a time to honor the strength and courage of children affected by cancer. About 10,500 children in the U.S. under 15 will be diagnosed with cancer this year, according to the American Cancer Society.
Cancer is the second leading cause of death in children 1–15. Advances in cancer treatments, however, have brought the five-year survival rate of childhood cancers from 58% in the mid-1970s to 84% today.
Unlike adult cancers, which are often linked to unhealthy lifestyles, most cancers in children occur because of DNA changes that happen in early life, even before birth. What causes these DNA changes is not always known.
The most common cancers in children are:
- Leukemia — blood or bone marrow cancer, 28% of childhood cancers.
- Brain and spinal cord tumors, 26% of childhood cancers.
- Lymphomas — tumor of lymph nodes, other lymph tissue and bone marrow.
- Neuroblastoma — tumor of early fetal nerve cells, usually in infants and young children .
- Wilms tumor — a type of kidney tumor, usually in children ages 3–4.
- Bone cancer, including osteosarcoma and Ewing sarcoma — usually in teens.
- Retinoblastoma — a cancer of the eye, usually in children around age 2.
- Rhabdomyosarcoma — a type of muscle tumor.
Cancers in children can be hard to recognize because the early symptoms are like those of other common illnesses or injuries.
Symptoms can include:
- A new lump or swelling.
- Sudden headaches with vomiting.
- Eye or vision changes.
- Unexplained weight loss.
- Excessive bruising.
If your child has unusual symptoms that aren't going away, talk to their health care provider.
Leslie Kummer, M.D., M.P.H., is a pediatrician in the Division of Community Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine at Mayo Clinic in Rochester. She practices at Mayo Family Clinic Northwest, and has special interests in newborn care, early childhood development, and community-based health interventions.