This page has information about cancers that occur during childhood. There is information about
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.
There are many different types of cancer, so we have listed the most common symptoms below. You can find information about specific symptoms in the information about each type of cancer.
Cancer symptoms can be very similar to those of other illnesses. And they vary between children. If your child has a symptom we haven't included here, and it hasn't gone away after a few weeks, take them to the GP. The following symptoms are not usually cancer, but see your doctor if your child has any of these
- Not able to wee, or blood in wee
- An unexplained lump or firmness anywhere in the body
- Swollen glands
- Back pain that doesn't go away
- Persistent headaches
- Frequent bruising
- Feeling tired all the time
- Unexplained fits (seizures) or changes in vision or behaviour
- Abdominal pain or swelling all the time
- Unexplained vomiting
- Unexplained sweating or fever
- Unexplained weight loss or poor appetite
- Changes in appearance of the eye or unusual eye reflections in photos
- Frequent infections or flu-like symptoms
You can find information about specific symptoms in the information about each type of cancer.
It is normal to worry if your child has symptoms of any illness. Cancer is rare in children and with many symptoms, it is perfectly right that your GP should ask you to wait to see if your child gets better or if they respond to treatment such as antibiotics.
To help GPs in the UK decide which patients need to see a specialist urgently the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) and the Scottish Government have produced guidelines.
These guidelines say that, ideally, your child should see a specialist within 2 weeks of going to the GP if they have symptoms that could be due to a cancer. And with some symptoms they should be seen immediately.
The guidelines leave it up to your GP to use their own judgement. They say that the GP should take the parents' knowledge of the child into account when deciding. If you have taken your child to the GP 3 or 4 times with the same problem and there is no obvious cause they should refer your child to a children’s doctor (paediatrician) or specialist children’s cancer service.
The most common types of childhood cancer are
- Acute leukaemias, diagnosed in 1 in 3 children with cancer
- Cancers of the brain and spinal cord, diagnosed in 1 in 4 children with cancer
The other rarer types of children's cancers include
- Retinoblastoma (a type of eye cancer)
- Neuroblastoma (a cancer of nerve cells)
- Wilm’s tumours (a type of kidney cancer)
- Muscle or bone cancers, such as osteosarcoma, rhabdomyosarcoma, and Ewings sarcoma
- Lymphoma (cancer that starts in the lymphatic system)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
- Inherited medical conditions
- Problems with development in the womb
- Exposure to infections
- Exposure to radiation
- Previous cancer treatments
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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Question about cancer? Contact our information nurse team