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Signs and symptoms of cancer in children

Find out about the possible symptoms of childhood cancer and when your child might be referred to see a specialist.

Cancer symptoms can be very similar to those of other childhood illnesses. And they vary between children. Remember the symptoms we list here are not usually cancer.

See your doctor if your child has any of these symptoms:

Diagram of possible symptoms of childhood cancer


Print this page out and take it with you to the appointment. It might help you explain to the doctor why you are worried. 

What happens next

Make sure you know what happens next. This includes where to go for any tests. Or, when to expect an appointment with another healthcare professional.

Ask when to make another appointment if your child’s symptoms don’t get better. Or if the symptoms get worse.

Seeing a specialist

It is normal to worry if your child has symptoms of any illness. Cancer is very rare in children. And because there are so many possible symptoms, sometimes your GP might ask you to wait to see if your child gets better. Or if they respond to treatment such as antibiotics.

There are general guidelines for all suspected childhood cancer referrals. These guidelines vary slightly between the different UK nations. They say that your child should see a specialist within 2 weeks of going to the GP if they have any symptoms that could be due to cancer. And with some symptoms, they should have a test, such as a blood test, within 48 hours. Some symptoms might mean your child is referred to a specialist immediately.

The first professional your child might see is a specialist children’s doctor. These doctors are called paediatricians. Your child is likely to see a specialist eye doctor, called an ophthalmologist, if they have symptoms related to their eyes.

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.

Other ways of being diagnosed

Some children are diagnosed with cancer during tests for another condition. Other children are diagnosed with cancer 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 they have their care planned by a specialist children’s cancer team. 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.

Last reviewed: 
19 Dec 2017
  • Suspected cancer: recognition and referral

    National Institute of Health and Care Excellence, 2015

  • Scottish referral guidelines for suspected cancer

    Healthcare Improvement Scotland, 2014

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

  • Cancer and its management (7th edition)

    J Tobias and D Hocchauser

    Wiley-Blackwell, 2015

Information and help

Dangoor sponsorship

About Cancer generously supported by Dangoor Education since 2010.