Signs and symptoms of cancer in children

Cancer symptoms can be very similar to those of other childhood illnesses. Remember the symptoms we list here are not usually cancer. See your child's doctor if they have any of the following symptoms:

  • they're unable to wee or have blood in their wee
  • an unexplained lump, firmness or swelling anywhere in the body
  • tummy (abdominal) pain or swelling that doesn't go away
  • back or bony pain that doesn't go away, or pain that wakes your child up in the night
  • unexplained seizures (fits) or changes in their behaviour and mood
  • headaches that don't go away
  • frequent or unexplained bruising or a rash of small red or purple spots that can't be explained
  • unusual paleness
  • feeling tired all the time
  • frequent infections or flu-like symptoms
  • unexplained vomiting (being sick)
  • unexplained high temperature (fever) or sweating
  • feeling short of breath
  • changes in the appearance of the eye or unusual eye reflections in photos
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 take your child 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 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 can get diagnosed with cancer during tests for other conditions. Other children might get a diagnosis of cancer after needing to go to Accident and Emergency (A&E). This is because their symptoms came on suddenly.

Seeing your child unwell and then learning about their cancer diagnosis in a short space of time can be very frightening. It might feel like you're in a bad dream that you haven't woken up from. It's important to reach out to family and friends you can talk to, or just take up simple offers of letting them do things for you.

Children’s cancer specialist team

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

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