Every bodily cell is tightly regulated with respect to growth, interaction with other cells, and even its life span. Cancer occurs when a type of cell has lost these normal control mechanisms and grows in a way that the body can no longer regulate.
Different kinds of cancer have different signs, symptoms, treatments, and outcomes, depending on the type of cell involved and the degree of uncontrolled cell growth.
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 ultimately can 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 the body's defenses against other illnesses.
Cancer affects 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 kids enter the teen years, there is 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, factors that trigger cancer in kids usually differ from those that cause cancer in adults, such as smoking or exposure to environmental toxins. Rarely, there may be an increased risk of childhood cancer in kids who have a genetic condition, such as Down syndrome. Those who have had chemotherapy or radiation treatment for a prior cancer episode may also have an increased risk of cancer.
In most cases, however, childhood cancers arise from noninherited mutations (or changes) in the genes of growing cells. Because these errors occur randomly and unpredictably, there's no effective way to prevent them.
Sometimes, a doctor might 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 much more common than cancer. Because of this, both doctors and parents might suspect other childhood illnesses when cancer symptoms first appear.
Once cancer has been diagnosed, it's important for parents to seek help from a medical center that specializes in pediatric oncology (treatment of childhood cancer).