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Different Types of Childhood Cancer

If you’re a parent, you know the thoughts, feelings and emotions that come with protecting your child. You’d do anything for them to ensure they live a long, healthy life. But what will you do when there are times when health conditions, such as childhood cancer, stand in the way?

Cancer in children is more common than you may think, as it accounts for the second-leading cause of death behind accidents. While a cancer diagnosis, or even the thought of your child developing cancer one day, is overwhelming, modern medicine has improved survival rates. As with any cancer, early detection is key. To help you familiarize yourself with childhood cancer, we asked Michael Confer, M.D., a radiation oncologist at the INTEGRIS Cancer Institute, about the different types of cancers, which signs to look for and how they can be treated.

What causes childhood cancer?

Unlike adult cancers, which can result from the environment or exposure to certain things, childhood cancers result from genetic mutations that occur early on in life or before birth.

It all comes down to changes in genes. Your DNA contains information to make different types of cells in your body. In other words, your skin cells contain information to be brain cells, while your kidney cells contain information to be heart muscle cells. As cells mature, they become specialized, turning on and off certain genes to allow them to perform specific duties. Cells need to be able to replicate to replace damaged cells of the same category. They grow with help from genes called proto-oncogenes.

When your DNA changes, it leads to genetic mutations, and cells can become permanently activated. This can lead to cells duplicating uncontrollably, known as cancer.

“Tumor suppressor genes slow down cell division. They repair DNA mistakes before cells divide and control cells’ internal death process (apoptosis or programmed cell death),” Dr. Confer says. “DNA mutations within tumor suppressor genes can also allow cells to duplicate uncontrollably. Children can be born with mutated proto-oncogenes or tumor suppressor genes in certain cells. These abnormally programmed cells lead to most childhood cancers.”

So, what causes DNA changes? Your child can inherit genes from a parent that increases their risk of cancer or they can acquire these genes. Cancers from acquired, sporadic gene mutations are more common than those from inherited gene mutations — 5% of all childhood cancers come from inherited mutations.

Breast cancer and ovarian cancer are the most common types of cancer caused by inherited DNA changes from BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutations. Even with how well-known these are, only 5 to 10% of breast cancer cases come from BRCA1/BRCA2 inherited mutations. Plus, breast cancer and ovarian cancer are more common in adults than children. Talk to your doctor or visit a genetic counselor if you have specific questions about inherited mutations.

Types of cancer that commonly affect children

Cancer can impact any part of your body, ranging from your bones and blood cells to your brain, spinal cord and other internal organs. You may be most familiar with leukemia, lymphoma, and brain and spinal tumors, since they are the most common. But, here is a full overview of cancers that commonly affect children, according to the American Cancer Society.

Leukemia: This is the most common type of cancer in children, accounting for 28% of cases. It generally starts in white blood cells and becomes fast growing (acute). Acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL) and acute myeloid leukemia (AML) are the two most common types of leukemia. Three out of every four children with leukemia have ALL. This type of cancer starts in the lymphoid cells, called lymphocytes, whereas AML starts in myeloid cells. Chronic myeloid leukemia (CML) and chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) are two types of rare cancers

Brain and spinal cord tumors: These types of cancers make up 26% of all cases. Brain tumors are more common than spinal cord tumors. The cancer generally starts in the lower part of the brain.

Neuroblastoma: This type of cancer affects infants and young children. Neuroblastoma starts in nerve cells during pregnancy and accounts for 6% of childhood cancers. Abdomen swelling is a common sign of neuroblastoma.

Wilms tumor: This type of cancer starts in the kidneys and impacts children who are 3 or 4 years old. It accounts for 5% of childhood cancers.

Lymphoma: Although lymphoma isn’t as common as other types of cancers, you’ve likely heard of Hodgkin lymphoma and non-Hodgkin lymphoma, the two main types of cancer that show up in the lymphocytes. Non-Hodgkin lymphoma (accounts for 5% of childhood cancers) appears in younger children and is more common than Hodgkin lymphoma (accounts for 3%), which is more common in younger adults. You may notice a swollen lymph node under your child’s arm or near their throat.

Rhabdomyosarcoma: This type of cancer develops in areas that your child uses to move their body, such as the head, pelvis, arms or legs. It accounts for 3% of childhood cancer cases.

Retinoblastoma: This cancer develops in the eyes, and your child is most at risk around the age of 2 until the age of 6. It accounts for 2% of childhood cancers.

Bone cancer: Bone cancer is more prominent in teens, but it still accounts for 3% of childhood cancers. There are two types, osteosarcoma and Ewing sarcoma, that show up via swelling around the bones. Ewing sarcoma is a less common type of cancer that is more prominent in older children and younger teens. Osteosarcoma, meanwhile, is more common in teens and in areas where bones grow quickly.

Signs of childhood cancer

There isn't a one-size-fits-all guide to know if your child has cancer. In general, Dr. Confer says to keep an eye on any changes in your child’s behavior, such as walking, eating, playing or sleeping. If they’re older, listen to any complaints they may have. Some cancers may produce a lump or swelling and pain in certain areas. Other symptoms include a loss of energy, weight loss, sudden eye or vision changes, frequent headaches with vomiting or a persistent fever that signifies the body is fighting an infection.

For example, leukemia, the most common type of childhood cancer, affects most children between the ages of 2 and 4. Typical symptoms include fever, bleeding, deep pain in the bones, small red spots on the skin called petechiae, bruises and enlarged lymph nodes.

Notify your child’s pediatrician if any of these concerns arise. Aside from that, you should schedule your child for routine checkups and wellness visits.

“Routine checkups and wellness visits help monitor normal growth and development. A good pediatrician-patient relationship helps the physician better identify subtle signs of cancer and gives parents a trusted sounding board for the concerns parents or children may have,” Dr. Confer says.

Childhood cancer treatment

Many childhood cancers have become increasingly treatable, leading to longer survival rates. Dr. Confer says acute lymphoblastic leukemia, lymphoma or kidney tumors known as Wilms tumor all have more than a 90% five-year survival rate (the percentage of patients who are alive five years after receiving treatment or a diagnosis).

In fact, the overall five-year survival rate for childhood cancers has improved from 58% in the mid-1970s to 84%, according to the American Cancer Society. But, certain types of aggressive cancer still exist. Diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma (DIPG), a rare brain tumor, is often cited as the childhood cancer with the poorest survival rate (less than 1% for five years).

“No matter the diagnosis, continual hope and quality, proven therapies are the most important factors for children and families facing childhood cancers,” Dr. Confer says.

Here are some of the most common forms of therapies to treat childhood cancer.


Surgery can help many patients, whether you need an entire tumor removed or a procedure to ease pain caused by a tumor. Your child’s surgeon can also debulk a tumor, meaning they remove part of it and treat the rest with another method. Surgery has the highest success rate when it’s contained to one area, before the cancer has an opportunity to metastasize (spread to other parts of the body).


High doses of radiation help reduce cancer by either killing the cells or damaging their DNA to slow growth. Over time, these cells die and your body removes them. You can either receive internal or external radiation. External radiation comes from a beam that treats a specific body part, whereas internal radiation is in solid or liquid form. More specifically, brachytherapy is the medical term for solid internal radiation. Your doctor will place capsules, seeds or ribbons near the tumor. Systemic therapy is the medical term for liquid internal radiation. With this method, the radiation travels through your blood via a pill, injection or IV to kill cancer cells.


Chemotherapy comes in many methods of application, such as IV, oral, injection, topical or through a catheter, port or pump. Chemotherapy also kills healthy cells, which is one of the downsides. This is why many chemotherapy patients lose their hair and experience other side effects. Depending on the type and progression of the cancer, chemotherapy can help shrink a tumor to increase the success rate of surgery or radiation. Chemotherapy can also fight against any lingering cancer cells following surgery or radiation. It’s also used to treat cancer that returns or metastasizes.


The immune system is your body’s way of defending itself against harmful germs, bacteria and viruses. When it comes to cancer, the immune system can have trouble recognizing and fighting off harmful cells because cancer starts in healthy cells. Immunotherapy helps your body pinpoint cancer kills to better defend against them. There are many types of immunotherapy treatments to boost your immune system. One type, chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T-cell therapy, mixes your own T-cells with a virus that teaches the T-cells how to kill cancer cells.

Targeted therapy

Targeted therapy is a form of chemotherapy. But, as the name suggests, these drugs zero in on a specific area of the cancer cells. Depending on the drug, targeted therapy can change the protein levels in cancer cells or block chemical signals that help cancer cells grow. Other targeted therapy drugs can limit blood vessel production to cut off the cancer cells or distribute toxins to specifically kill the cancer while sparing healthy cells.

Stem cell transplant

Stem cells, which originate in the bone marrow, make red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets. Leukemia and lymphoma start in the blood cells, causing damage to the cells your body needs to function. A stem cell transplant involves destroying cancer cells via chemotherapy and/or radiation before replacing them with new, healthy cells. This allows doctors to use stronger doses of chemotherapy or radiation knowing new cells, via a transplant, will replace old, damaged cells. Stem cell transplants can come from your own cells or the cells of another person. Donated cells are often more effective since they can help kill off cancer cells.

While you can’t do anything to prevent your child from developing cancer, you can be proactive by scheduling regular checkups and looking out for warning signs and symptoms. Contact an INTEGRIS pediatrician if you have any concerns, and they can refer you to an oncologist at the INTEGRIS Cancer Institute.