What Are Childhood Cancers?
These are cancers that affect children. Unlike in adults, childhood cancers are rare and their causes as well as their treatments may be quite different.
Types of Childhood Cancers
Cancers often affecting adults such as breast, stomach and lung cancers are relatively scarce in children. The following are the most common cancer types affecting children:
- Leukaemia: This is a cancer which starts in blood-forming tissue, usually the bone marrow. It leads to the over-production of abnormal white blood cells, the part of the immune system which defends the body against infection. This cancer is common in children under the age of 10.
- Brain Cancer: This is the growth of malignant tissues (tumours) that interfere with brain functions such as muscle control, sensations, memory, and other normal body functions.
- Neuroblastoma: This is a type of cancer that starts in certain very early forms of nerve cells found in an embryo or foetus. The term neuro refers to nerves, while blastoma refers to a cancer that affects immature or developing cells. This type of cancer occurs most often in infants and young children and is rarely found in children older than 10 years.
- Rhabdomyosarcoma: This cancer usually begins in muscles that are attached to bones which cause the voluntary activities within the body. It can begin in many places in the body such as the head, shoulders, neck, arms, chest and around the eyes. There are 3 main types of this cancer: embryonal, alveolar and anaplastic.
- Lymphoma: This cancer begins in infection-fighting cells of the immune system, called lymphocytes. These cells are in the lymph nodes, spleen, thymus, bone marrow, and other parts of the body. There are several different types of lymphoma which are categorized as Hodgkin lymphoma and non-Hodgkin lymphoma groupings.
- Retinoblastoma: This cancer starts in the retina, the very back part of the eye that is made up of special nerve cells, sensitive to light. The eyes develop very early as babies grow in the womb. During this stage the eyes have cells called retinoblasts that divide into new cells and fill the retina. Instead of maturing into special cells that detect light, some retinoblasts continue to divide and grow out of control, forming a cancer known as retinoblastoma.
- Sarcoma cancers: These are rare types of cancers that occur when malignant cells rapidly grow in the connective tissues. Osteosarcoma and Ewing’s sarcoma are the most common types of sarcoma cancers in children.
- Wilms Tumour: This is the growth of a cancerous tumour in the kidney and is quite different from adult kidney cancer.
Symptoms of Childhood Cancers
As mentioned earlier there many types of cancers that affect children, and so depending on where the cancers occur, the symptoms and signs may vary. However, as a general rule, it is important to observe your child for any of the following sudden or persistent changes:
- Persistent swelling or pain in the bones, joints, back or legs
- Eye or vision changes
- Repeated, frequent infections
- Persistent fever
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Lump or mass in the abdomen, neck or pelvis
- Intermittent pain in the abdomen that persists for more than a week
- Constipation and bloated stomach
- Easy bruising, bleeding gums or frequent nose bleeding
- Blood in urine or abnormal urine colour
- Walking or balance problems
- Growth retardation
- Seizures unrelated to high fever
- Excessive thirst and excessive urination
- Difficulty in swallowing
- Whitish colour behind the pupil
- Persistent red irritation of the eye
- Fatigue, fever, weight loss, anaemia.
Causes/ factors leading to Childhood Cancers
Studies have shown that there are no known causes of childhood cancers, however there are some things that can escalate the chances of getting these diseases, such as:
- Environmental factors: such as radiation exposure.
- Genetic disorder: Genes are responsible for cell growth, division and death. Cancer can be caused when the DNA disallows the division or death of cells (gene mutations).
- Family history: Some children inherit DNA mutations (that increase their risk of certain types of cancers) from a parent.
Diagnosis of Childhood Cancers
Diagnosis in childhood cancer depends on the type of cancer suspected, the signs, the symptoms and the age of the child. Apart from physical examination, there are numerous tests that help in making a reliable diagnosis which include:
- Blood and urine tests: The testing of blood or urine to look for cancer cells or tumour makers.
- Biopsy: A test in which a small piece of a tissue is removed and observed under a microscope to see whether there are cancer cells present.
- Bone marrow aspiration and biopsy: The removal of a fluid present in the bone marrow through a needle.
- Ultrasound: The use of waves to create a picture of the internal organs.
- Spinal tap (lumbar puncture): The use of a needle to take a sample of the cerebral fluid to test for cancer cells, blood or tumour makers.
- Imaging tests: The use of tests such as MRI, CT or PET-CT scans to take pictures of the inside parts of your body.
Treatments options for various types of cancer
- Bone marrow transplant: This is done to restore the normal blood cell production in children with leukaemia.
- Surgery: The removal of tumours through an operation. This option is convenient if the tumour is relatively small.
- Radiation: This form of treatment uses high energy rays to destroy cancer cells.
- Chemotherapy: Drugs taken orally or through the direct injection into a vein, muscle or the spinal fluid to kill cancer cells.
- Immune therapy: This is one of the latest forms of cancer treatment, boosts the immune system to destroy cancer cells. Click here to Learn more about Immunotherapy
Prevention of Childhood Cancers
Preventing childhood cancers can be difficult because unlike adult cancers, lifestyle related risk factors such as smoking are certainly not the influencers of these cancers. However, ensuring your children have a healthy diet, physical activity, and regular check-ups might play a small role in preventing these diseases.