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Children's cancers

This page has information about cancers that occur during childhood. There is information about

 

Children’s cancers

On this page you can find out about the different types of childhood cancer and their causes. There are links to other pages on our site about  specific cancer types.

 

Types of childhood cancer

The most common types of childhood cancer are

The other rarer types of children's cancers include

We have a general section about acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (the most common type of childhood leukaemia) and another about brain tumours. These sections are about adult cancer, rather than children's cancers. But much of the information about causes, diagnosis and treatment will be the same.

 

How common children's cancers are

Childhood cancer is much less common than adult cancer. In fact it is quite rare. In the UK around 1,600 children (under 15s) are diagnosed with cancer each year. This number includes non cancerous (benign) brain tumours. This is a small number compared with the 320,500 cancer diagnoses overall in the UK. Children develop different types of cancers than adults but they often have the same types of treatments.

 

How often childhood cancer is cured

In the 1960s only about 3 out of every 10 children (30%) with cancer were successfully treated. But in the past 40 years treatment for children with cancer has improved greatly. Now more than 8 out of every 10 children diagnosed with cancer will live for at least 5 years. Most of these children will be cured.

For some types of childhood cancer such as acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL) and Wilms' tumour (a type of kidney cancer in children) this rate is even higher. With these types of cancer more than 8 out of 10 children (80%) diagnosed will live for at least 5 years. 

Hodgkin lymphoma and an eye cancer called retinoblastoma are curable in more than 9 out of 10 children (90%).

Infographic on leukaemia treatment rates since the 1970sYou can click on the image to see a diagram showing how success rates for leukaemia treatment have improved in recent years.

Even though cancer is not common in children, it is the most common cause of death from illness in children between the ages of 1 and 15. This is because children today are at much lower risk of dying from infectious diseases than they were 80 years ago. So although the percentages of children dying from various cancers have gone down, the proportion of childhood deaths from cancer overall has gone up.

 

Causes of cancer in children

Although we have identified a number of lifestyle changes that can help to prevent many adult cancers developing cancer, we don't know how to prevent most childhood cancers. We don't know what causes childhood cancers either. We do know some factors that increase risk, but most children with cancer don't have any of these risk factors. And many children who do have risk factors won't go on to develop cancer. 

The known risk factors include

There is more information about all these factors further down the page. A couple of other factors keep cropping up as possible risk factors but so far there is no convincing evidence that either of them are related to childhood cancer. They are

Inherited conditions

Certain inherited (genetic) conditions can increase a child's risk of developing some types of cancers. For example, children with Down's syndrome are 10 to 20 times more likely to get leukaemia than other children. Do bear in mind that leukaemia is still very rare, even in these children.

Problems with development in the womb

Some childhood cancers such as Wilm’s tumours (kidney cancer in children) and retinoblastomas (eye cancer in children) begin when the baby is still inside their mother. When a baby is growing in the womb, many parts of the body, such as the kidneys and eyes, develop very early on. Sometimes something goes wrong and some of the cells that should have turned into mature cells to form a part of the body don’t. Instead they remain as very immature cells. Usually, these immature cells don't cause any problems and mature by themselves by the time the child is 3 or 4. But if they don’t, they may begin to grow out of control and develop into a cancerous tumour.

Exposure to infections

Epstein Barr virus (EBV) is a common infection in young children. It usually causes no symptoms. But it can cause glandular fever (infectious mononucleosis) in teenagers and young adults. In rare cases EBV can contribute to the development of cancers such as Hodgkin lymphoma and Burkitt’s lymphoma.

Exposure to radiation

We know that radiation can increase cancer risk because children exposed to radiation after the atomic bombings in Japan had a much greater risk of developing leukaemia. Children who have radiotherapy for cancer have a slightly greater risk of developing another type of cancer later on. But the risk is small compared to the risk to their health if the original cancer had not been treated with radiotherapy.

There is sometimes concern in the press about levels of radon gas in the home. But overall, studies so far have only suggested that there may be a weak link between indoor levels of radon gas and risk of childhood leukaemia.

Past treatment with chemotherapy can increase the risk of cancers such as acute leukaemia many years later in children and adults. There is more information about acute leukaemia and previous cancer treatments in our question and answer section.

Electromagnetic fields

Some reports have suggested that exposure to electromagnetic fields (for example, overhead power lines) might increase a child's risk of developing cancer. But as yet no conclusive link has been found. There is more information about electromagnetic fields and cancer risk in the questions and answers section.

Vitamin K injection in newborn babies

To prevent a condition called vitamin K deficiency bleeding (VKDB), vitamin K injections have been given to newborn babies since the late 1950's without any reported problems. VKDB is a very serious disease and about half the babies who suffer it will die or have permanent brain damage because of bleeding into the brain.

Concerns about the safety of vitamin K injection came about in the 1990's when 2 medical papers suggested a link between vitamin K injections and childhood leukaemia. Since then several other studies have been carried out in the UK, across Europe, and in the USA, which have found no association between vitamin K injections and an increased risk of childhood leukaemia.

 

How cancer affects the child and their family

Although about 8 out of 10 children are now successfully treated, childhood cancer is still devastating for everyone concerned. Treatment can last for months, or even years, which means long stays in hospital and being away from the home, school, friends and siblings. School age children may fall behind. Even though children’s wards have teachers to keep the children's school work up to date, side effects from the cancer and its treatment often make children very tired. They may feel like not doing anything at times, except having a cuddle with mum or dad.

Cancer Research UK scientists have found evidence of increased withdrawal, anxiety and depression in childhood cancer survivors 9 months after diagnosis. They have been looking at how families cope when a child has cancer and what factors are important in making the child (and family) either more vulnerable or better able to cope with the cancer and its consequences.

As well as the doctors and nurses on the ward, you and your child will be supported by a number of professionals during and after treatment, including your GP, cancer nurse specialists, social workers, play specialists and a psychologist or psychotherapist.

 

Getting information and support

There is a lot of support available to help you and your child. You can contact the Cancer Research UK information nurses on freephone 0808 800 4040, from 9am until 5pm, Monday to Friday.

Our page about children's cancer organisations gives details of organisations you can contact for information, help and support. 

The Children's Cancer and Leukaemia Group (CCLG) have a booklet called A Parent’s Guide to Children’s Cancers – For parents and carers. This gives general information about childhood cancer, treatments and where to get further information and support. It is helpful for parents and grandparents. The CCLG also has factsheets about individual types of children’s cancer and their treatment.

Cancer Research UK has an online forum called Cancer Chat. You may find it helpful to join the forum to

  • Talk to other people whose children or grandchildren have cancer
  • Share your experiences
  • Find information
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Updated: 5 September 2014