What Is Cancer?
All kinds of cancer, including childhood cancer, have a common disease process - cells grow out of control, develop abnormal sizes and shapes, ignore their typical boundaries inside the body, destroy their neighbor cells, and can ultimately spread (or metastasize) to other organs and tissues. As cancer cells grow, they demand more and more of the body's nutrition. Cancer takes a child's strength, destroys organs and bones, and weakens a child's defenses against other illnesses.
Thankfully, childhood cancer is relatively rare, affecting only about 14 of every 100,000 children in the United States each year. Among all age groups, the most common childhood cancers are leukemia, lymphoma, and brain cancer. As children enter their teen years, there is also an increase in the incidence of osteosarcoma (bone cancer). The sites of cancer are different for each type, as are treatment and cure rates.
Typically, the factors that trigger cancer in children are usually not the same factors that may cause cancer in adults, such as smoking or exposure to environmental toxins. Rarely, there may be an increased risk of childhood cancer in children who have a genetic condition, such as Down syndrome. Children who have had chemotherapy or radiation treatment for a prior cancer episode may also have an increased risk of cancer. In almost all cases, however, childhood cancers arise from noninherited mutations (or changes) in the genes of growing cells. Because these errors occur randomly and unpredictably, there is currently no effective way to prevent them.
Sometimes, your child's doctor may be able to spot early symptoms of cancer at regular checkups. However, some of these symptoms (such as fever, swollen glands, frequent infections, anemia, or bruises) are also associated with other infections or conditions that are not cancer. Because of this, it is not uncommon for both doctors and parents to suspect other childhood illnesses when cancer symptoms first appear.
Once cancer has been diagnosed, it is important for parents to seek help for their child at a medical center that specializes in pediatric oncology, or treatment for childhood cancer.