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The Prevalence of Childhood Cancer

8 mins

ON THIS PAGE: You will find out more about,

  • types of cancer that affects children the most
  • symptoms and treatment options for each type of cancer
  •  the role of parents in caring for a child with cancer

Photo credit: Canva

Our body systems are replete with various cells that control the effective functioning of every part of us. The efficient interactions of these cells in the body impact our growth, maintenance and well-being. Cancer occurs when these cells are no longer in charge of the specific functions they perform or when they totally lose control of their own growth.

This uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells that divide rapidly often results in infiltration and destruction of tissue, thereby bringing the normal control mechanism of the body to a halt.

This experience is usually common in adults than in children because what causes cancer in children is quite different from what causes cancer in adults. For instance, unlike most adult cancers, childhood cancers are scarcely linked to lifestyle or environmental factors, and mostly associated with genetics and heredity.

According to the U.S National Cancer Institute, the annual Cancer diagnosis for children is about 10,000 while adults account for 1.5 million cases.

In this article, more attention will be placed on childhood cancers, shedding more light on the most common pediatric cancers.

Cancer patients between the ages of 0-14 years are usually diagnosed with the following cancers:

1. Leukaemia:

Leukaemia is the cancer of the blood and the bone marrow. This term originates from the Greek words, leukos, meaning white, and haima, meaning blood. Leukaemia is cancer that affects the white blood cells by multiplying its underdeveloped abnormal cells in high numbers.

The white blood cells, also called leukocytes, are responsible for fighting infections and destroying foreign bodies and diseases that threaten the health. Since the white blood cells are in charge of fighting pathogens, the harmful manipulations of these cells results in a suppression of the immune system, making the body open to frequent infections.

Like most cancers, the cause of leukaemia is not known but can be traced to environmental or hereditary factors like family history. Also, children with Down syndrome are more susceptible to leukaemia.

Photo credit: Canva

According to the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), the most common symptoms of leukaemia in children include,

  • consistent fever
  • easy bruising
  • pale skin
  • an enlarged spleen or liver.
  • It can sometimes cause anaemia (shortage of blood) since there’s a marked deficiency in the development of normal blood cells.

The most common types of leukaemia in children are:

Acute myeloid leukaemia (AML): a condition in which excess immature white blood cells are developed, hindering the growth of normal blood cells. It affects children between the ages of 2-8.

Acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL): a condition which spikes the production of many lymphoblasts, thus creating less room for healthy blood cells. It affects children between the ages of 2-5.

Treatment for Leukaemia range from chemotherapy to radiation therapy, and in some cases, bone marrow transplant.

Thanks to the advancement in health-technology, medical research and clinical trials, a considerable number of children treated for leukaemia get cured of the disease.

2. Brain Cancer and other Central Nervous System (CNS) Tumours:

Known as the second most common type of cancer in children, brain cancers account for 15% of pediatric cancers (ACCO).

As the name implies, Brain cancers are the growth of abnormal cells that affect the brain tissues. The brain is one of the most sensitive parts of the human makeup, which makes pediatric brain cancers very challenging to treat.

Since the brain is the command centre of the central nervous system, it is essential to detect brain tumours early. Most of these tumours are difficult to operate or outright inoperable because of their location (especially as the skull which encompasses the brain has little or no space for the tumours).

Photo credit: Canva

Brain tumours are either malignant or benign. Malignant brain tumours contain cancerous cells, while the benign tumours do not.

Common symptoms of brain cancers in children are very tricky to determine because they are usually similar to other common childhood ailments.

Symptoms include:

  • Seizures
  • Recurrent headaches
  • Personality changes
  • Drowsiness
  • Rapidly enlarging head (in toddlers)
  • Vomiting
  • Double vision or speech changes
  • Coma

There are several types of brain cancers, but the most common is Gliomas. This is the umbrella term for all brain tumours that originate in glial cells of the brain. According to the American Cancer Society, about half of all brain and spinal cord tumours in children are Gliomas.

The Columbia University Department of Neurology lists some of these tumours to include:

  • Angiocentric glioma
  • Astrocytoma
  • Diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma (DIPG) 
  • Gliomatosis cerebri
  • Gliosarcoma
  • Dysembryoplastic neuroepithelial tumour (DNET or DNT)
  • Ganglioglioma and glial neuronal tumors
  • Oligodendroglioma
  • Optic nerve (pathway) glioma
  • Pleomorphic xanthoastrocytoma (PXA)
  • Tectal glioma (a brainstem glioma)
  • Thalamic and hypothalamic astrocytoma

 Other brain tumours that are not Gliomas include:

  • Primitive neuroectodermal tumours (PNET)
  • Medulloblastomas
  • Pineal region tumours
  • Craniopharyngiomas

Treatment for pediatric brain tumours is dependent on factors such as the child’s age, the location of the tumour and the stage of cancer. Some of the treatment options for such cancers are neurosurgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy, proton beam therapy, and steroids.

3. Lymphoma:

Lymphoma is a broad term that encompasses the cancers of the lymphatic system. This type of childhood cancer makes the blood cells develop rapidly, split up, and live longer than normal. It affects the lymphatic system, which is responsible for transporting lymph which protects the body against diseases. Lymph carry antibodies which fight infections in the body.

Photo credit: Canva

Symptoms of Lymphoma in children include,

  • Enlarged lymph nodes
  • Shortness of breath
  • Swollen abdomen
  • Night sweats
  • Consistent fever
  • Fatigue
  • Weight loss

The two major types of lymphomas are:

  • hodgkin lymphoma (HL): a condition which affects the lymphoid cells by making them grow abnormally and spread beyond the lymphatic system.
  • non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL): this condition also affects the lymph, but in this case, it generates tumours from lymphocytes. It is actually more common in children than Hodgkin lymphoma.

Lymphoma also affects children from 0-14 years, although Hodgkin lymphoma rarely affects children less than 5 years of age. Both Hodgkin and non-Hodgkin lymphomas are more common in male children than female.

The causes of Lymphoma are not known, but viral infections like the Human Immune Virus (HIV) and Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) increase the risk factors for being diagnosed with Lymphoma. Other factors include any activity that weakens the immune system like previous chemotherapy or the intake of immunosuppressive drugs.

Treatment for Lymphoma depends on the particular type that is being treated. But most of the treatments include chemotherapy, radiotherapy and in some cases, surgery.

According to a recent study, children have more chances of beating cancers than adults as survival rates for children with cancer is much higher than that of their adult counterparts.

This is not to go without saying that children who beat cancer will have to be extra careful in their habits and lifestyle for the rest of their adult lives as survivors. For obvious reasons, the long term side effects of after-cancer treatment impact the quality of life of childhood cancer survivors later in life.

What Roles Can Parents Play?

Photo credit: Canva

Indeed, it can be devastating to handle a kid with cancer. First, learning that one’s child has cancer comes with its fair share of shock and down feelings.

But it is noteworthy that children respond better to cancer treatments. This is to say that your kid has a higher chance of surviving.

For the child, this period is equally very crucial. It is not uncommon for the diagnosed child to have to stay away from school or give up playtime with other kids. The child’s new reality may now include frequent visits to the hospital, taking lots of medications, tests and therapy.

As a parent, it will be helpful to explain to the kid what is happening in very simple terms, while reassuring him/her that the phase is only temporary. This is so as to avoid the feelings of anxiety and fear overwhelming the child.

You can also encourage the child to keep a journal to write down their feelings, a canvas to paint, lively music to listen to, and lots of inspiring storybooks to read.

The whole experience of cancer diagnosis and treatment can be daunting for both the child and the parents. Try your best not to always show gloominess around the child. Find ways outside your child’s presence to express your sadness or vent your anger. Just don’t do those around the child patient as all they need is hope and assurance.

Again, your child’s diet is of utmost importance in this period. Ensure that the child is on a balanced diet, especially one that goes well with his/her treatment plan.

You can read more on Nutritional Needs for Kids with Cancer.

Know that you do not have to do this alone. If need be, get the support of a pediatric psychotherapist or counselor to talk to your child once in a while.

You can find helpful information on other types of Cancer in the links below:

What You Need to Know About Cancer

Lung Cancer: What You Need to Know

Medical Disclaimer: KompleteCareā„¢ aims to improve the quality of life for everyone with fact-based content about the nature of diseases, preventive care, behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.

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Ginika is the Lead content writer at KompleteCare. She also doubles as an editor and proofreader for everything that concerns content. When she's not writing content for KompleteCare, you might find her copy-editing works for authors before publication. Reach Ginika at

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