A Refresher on Childhood Cancers

Cancer during childhood is rather rare, accounting for less than 1% of all cancer cases. Only around 11,000 children under the age of 15 are diagnosed with cancer each year. However, when it's your child that has received a diagnosis of cancer, the news can be devastating.

Common cancers

There are a huge number of cancers that can affect children, but the five top ones are:

  • Leukemia
  • Brain and spinal cord tumors
  • Neuroblastoma
  • Wilms' tumor
  • Lymphoma

Treatments and prognosis

Treatment differs by each cancer type, but generally involves surgery, chemotherapy, and/or radiotherapy. The prognosis also varies by cancer type; for example, close to 90% of patients with Wilms' tumor can be cured outright. However, some types of childhood cancers have a dismal outlook, such as malignant rhabdoid tumors, that have a five-year survival rate of only around 20%. However, overall, the prognosis for most childhood cancers is good, with five-year survival rates of around 80%, and many children are cured of their condition.


Unlike adult-onset cancers, which are generally caused by lifestyle and environmental exposures, most childhood cancers can be thought of as birth defects. They are caused by DNA changes that occur during fetal or early childhood development. Most can be thought of as random flukes, although in rare cases a family may produce more than one child affected by cancer, in which case the parents are probably passing down one or more mutations to their children. Some studies have established weak links between various parental and early childhood environmental exposures and a slightly increased risk of childhood cancer, but no clear conclusions have been reached so far.

Survivor effects

As increasing numbers of children are cured of their cancer and move into adulthood, a great deal of attention has been turned to late effects of exposure to chemotherapy and/or radiation as a young child. It is well-known that rapidly growing young animals are uniquely sensitive to suffering tissue and DNA damage from exposure to chemotherapy and radiation during this critical period. Although most children seem completely healthy, others have been found to suffer from:

  • Slowed or delayed growth
  • Heart or lung problems
  • Infertility or subfertility
  • Learning impairments
  • An increased risk of developing an adult-onset cancer

After completing treatment for cancer, survivors will need regular life-long checkups to look for tumor recurrences, the occurrence of a secondary cancer, and the emergence of late effects of treatment.

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