September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month
As a parent, one of the most devastating things you can hear is that your child has been diagnosed with cancer. It is a fear which lives in the back of many parents' minds, and there is not much that can be done to prevent it. This article will give an overview of childhood cancer, from key facts to treatment options.
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Childhood Cancer Concerns People from Birth to Age 20.
According to the Childrens Cancer Research fund, about 1 out of 285 children will develop cancer before their 20th birthday.
Cancer in Children is Different than in Adults
The parts of the body where cancer develops initially is different in children than in adults. In children, cancer often relates to the nervous system.
We Don't Fully Understand the Causes of Childhood Cancer
Children of all ages, races, and economic backgrounds develop cancer. While a small number of cases are genetic, no one knows the precise cause.
Early Detection Saves Lives
To battle childhood cancer, an early diagnosis can be pivotal. This requires parents and adults to:
- Be aware of symptoms of childhood cancer,
- Be willing to discuss changes in their child with a doctor,
- Take their child in for a clinical evaluation to determine the type and stage,
- Have access to treatment right away.
What is Childhood Cancer?
"Cancer" is not a single disease. It is a group of diseases which involve the rapid growth or development of abnormal cells in the body. In a healthy body, as cells age and die, they are replaced by new cells. In the case of cancer, injured or old cells will continue to replicate until they form a tumor.
In children, the most common forms of cancer involve the brain, the spinal cord, the nervous system, the immune system, the bones, and the blood. The causes behind this are not clear to researchers at the moment, but a small number of cases have been linked to genetic abnormalities. As far as we know, children are not as affected by preventable cancers, such as oral cancer, as adults are.
How is Childhood Cancer Detected and Diagnosed?
Detecting childhood cancer begins with parents. A child might complain of aches, soreness, and fatigue, without knowing why they are feeling sick. A parent might also notice that their child bruises easily, or that injuries take an abnormally long time to heal. If these symptoms persist in your child, speak to their primary doctor (pediatrician) and arrange a screening.
Cancer screenings in children will be based on the child's symptoms, medical and family history, age, and the type of cancer the doctors think it might be. It is important to explain the tests to your child and tell them what to expect.
The process generally begins with a physical examination by a doctor or nurse. During this appointment, they will also draw blood for blood tests, and may also do a series of body scans.
Scans, such as x-rays, CT scans, ultrasounds, and PET scans, are a method of taking photographs of the body's internal organs. These scans may involve putting your child into a machine and require complete stillness. If your doctor wants to take scans, explain the process to your child. While these scans are painless, it might be scary to enter a machine and can cause stress in your child. Knowing what to expect may help them cope with their fear.
In some cases, doctors will want to do a biopsy. Biopsies are a procedure where a sample of cells or tissue is removed from the body to be studied by a pathologist. The pathologist will then be able to tell if cancer cells are present in the sample and have a clearer idea of what type and stage the cancer is.
It may take some time for you to learn the results of these tests, scans, and biopsies. This is because they require consultations from different types of doctors. For example, a pathologist can explain the results of a biopsy, but may not be able to explain the results of an x-ray. This is because a radiologist, who specializes in these types of scans, will be consulted before results are disclosed. During this time, it is important to be patient, but proactive. Continue speaking to your child's pediatrician and keeping them informed of any changes in your child's health or wellbeing.
Treatment Plan and Side Effects
The treatment plans a doctor will suggest is based on the stage and type of cancer the child has. The treatment plan will take your child's age and medically relevant factors into consideration when they create the plan. Your doctor will also explain the side effects that you can expect from the type of treatment being given.
Side effects are the health problems that can occur when the treatment damages healthy cells and tissues which are developing normally. Side effects will always vary based on the child and type of treatment they receive. It is important to know that doctors plan the type of treatment given so that your child will experience the least amount of side effects possible. It is also possible that your child will not experience all the possible side effects of a given treatment.
Types of Treatments and What to Expect
A surgery (operation) is often the most effective method of removing solid tumors from the body. During the surgery, your child will be put under anesthesia and surgeons will remove as much of the cancerous growth as possible. The type of procedure your child will undergo is dependent on the type of cancer they have and where it is located in the body.
Once your child has recovered, they will go through the process of screening again to see the results of the surgery. If not all of the cancer has been removed, they may need additional treatments like chemotherapy or radiation therapy. These treatments aim to destroy all remaining cancer cells and prevent recurrence.
Radiation therapy involves using high-energy radiation to destroy cancer cells and shrink tumors. There are three different types of radiation therapy used to treat cancer patients:
External-beam radiation therapy: This form of radiation therapy uses a machine to direct a radiation beam at the part(s) of the body where the cancer is located. The rest of the body will be covered with a lead shield to protect the child's healthy cells. This type of radiation therapy is typically done in for one minute to an hour every day, week, or month.
Internal radiation therapy (brachytherapy): This form of radiation therapy involves implanting a source of radiation (usually it is sealed with wires) as close as possible to the cancerous growth. The implant may be left in for as little as a few minutes or as long as a month before it is removed.
Systemic radiation therapy: This form of radiation therapy involves administering a radioactive substance to the child in the form of a capsule they swallow or as an injection. This will occur in cycles and is safest when it is administered in a sterile environment, like a hospital.
Chemotherapy involves using drugs to stop, or slow, the growth of cancerous cells. Unfortunately, these drugs will affect healthy and cancerous cells indiscriminately. Because healthy cells throughout the body will be affected by this form of treatment, it is given in cycles that will allow some recovery time.
Chemotherapy can be administered in the form of:
- An IV (intravenous) line into a vein,
- A pill, capsule, or liquid that is injected orally (swallowed),
- An injection,
- A topical cream (lotion) that is rubbed onto the skin.
Immunotherapy is a type of biological therapy that focuses on stimulating and strengthening your child's immune system. This will help the body itself recognize and fight off the cancer cells. It is given along with other forms of treatment, such as radiation therapy or chemotherapy.
Researchers are still studying the impact of immunotherapy on different types of cancers, but it is known to be an effective way of helping the body recognize and fight cancer cells.
Immunotherapy is administered in the form of an injection or a pill.
This page was written to provide insight into childhood cancer, but the CCA is not a medical authority, nor does it do cancer research. For more information, the CCA recommends looking at:
The National Cancer Institute's page on childhood cancer, which can be found here:
The American Cancer Society's pages on cancer in children, which can be found here:
Childhood Cancer International's brochures and stories, which can be found here:
The Children's Cancer Research Fund's page on the topic, which can be found here: