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Referral to a specialist

It is normal to worry if your child has symptoms of any illness. But cancer in children is rare. Having possible symptoms doesn’t mean your child has leukaemia. But it is important to take them to the GP, so they can check them out.

Seeing your GP

It can be hard for GPs to decide who may have cancer and who might have a more minor condition. For some symptoms, your doctor may ask you to wait to see if your child’s symptoms get better or respond to treatment, such as antibiotics.

There are guidelines for GPs to help them decide who needs a referral.

For suspected leukaemia in children, the guidelines state your child should have a very urgent blood test to look at their blood count within 48 hours.

They should be referred to a specialist immediately by the GP if they have:

  • small pink or purple spots on their skin that can’t be explained
  • a swelling in their abdomen (tummy) area that could be an enlarged spleen or liver
  • blood test results that could show a possible leukaemia

These guidelines are very clear that that the GP should take the parent or carers concern about their child into account when deciding about a specialist referral.

The first professional your child might see is a specialist children’s doctor. These doctors are called paediatricians. They might then go on to see a specialist children and young person’s blood doctor. These doctors are called consultant paediatric haematologists.

Other ways of being diagnosed

Some children are diagnosed with leukaemia during tests for another condition. Other children are diagnosed after needing to go to A&E because their symptoms come on suddenly.

Seeing your child unwell and then learning about their cancer diagnosis in a short space of time can be very frightening.

Children’s cancer specialist team

Once your child is diagnosed a specialist children’s cancer team plan their care. The team is used to planning care for, and treating, children with cancer. They explain everything to you and your family. There is lots of practical, emotional and psychological support available for children with cancer and their families.

Quotes from parents - keep asking the professionals
Last reviewed: 
11 Jul 2018
  • Suspected cancer: recognition and referral
    National Institute of Health and Care Excellence, 2015

  • Scottish referral guidelines for suspected cancer
    Healthcare Improvement Scotland, 2014

  • Pan-London Suspected Cancer Referral Guide: Children
    Pan London Cancer Guidelines, 2017

  • Parents' accounts of obtaining a diagnosis of childhood cancer
    M Dixon-Woods and others
    The Lancet, 2001. Vol 357, Issue 9257

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