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What are the Signs of Childhood Cancer?

Question of the Week


Updated May 16, 2014

Q. A friend's child was recently diagnosed with leukemia and every time my daughter gets sick, I worry that she has it too. What are the signs of cancer in children? What should I look for?

A. This is a common worry among parents, especially when their kids are sick for more than 5-7 days without a good explanation.

My son has a headache. Could he have a brain tumor?

My daughter has a swollen gland. Could she have leukemia or lymphoma? Does my child have cancer?

Unfortunately, they often don't voice that worry to their Pediatrician, who would usually be able to quickly reassure them that their child likely doesn't have any type of cancer.

Even though there are many different types of childhood cancer, the risk for any one child to have cancer is fairly low and cancer is considered to be rare in children. Overall, there are only about 150 cases of childhood cancer for every 1 million children in the United States. Still, cancer is one of the leading causes of death in children, so it is important to be aware of the signs and symptoms of cancer in children.

Among the types of cancer that children are most likely to get include:

  • leukemia - most common type of childhood cancer
  • brain tumors - second most common form of cancer in children
  • lymphoma - such as Hodgkins and non-Hodgkins lymphoma
  • neuroblastoma - most common solid tumor outside of the brain in children
  • bone tumors - including Ewing's sarcoma and Osteosarcoma
  • retinoblastoma - an eye tumor that is usually detected by examining for a red reflex in a child's eye
  • Wilm's Tumor - a kidney tumor that mostly affects young children between the ages of 2 and 4 years
The symptoms of these cancers are sometimes easy to recognize, such as the large abdominal mass in a child with Wilm's Tumor.

Some other symptoms of cancer in children might include fever, frequent infections, bone pain, night sweats, vomiting, and headaches, all of which children often have when they have more common and less serious viral infections or other common problems of childhood.

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