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Common childhood cancers: Spotting the symptoms and knowing the causes

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Childhood cancer awareness month
Childhood cancer is a devastating subject and the worst nightmare for every parent.

Although it's tough to think about, cancer developing in children is actually significantly less common than the development in adulthood, and is really quite rare.

To put this in perspective, around 1,800 children are diagnosed with cancer every year in the UK compared to more than 352,000 adults – that number for children also includes those with benign brain tumours.

Out of these children, more than 80% will go on to live for at least another five years. As research into childhood cancers has progressed, so has the survival rate. Cancer Research UK states that in the 1970s, more than a third of children diagnosed with cancer survived their disease beyond 10 years, now it's around three-quarters.

Most common childhood cancers

  • Leukemia
  • Cancer of the brain and central nervous system
  • Neuroblastoma
  • Wilms tumor
  • Lymphoma
  • Rhabdomyosarcoma
  • Retinoblastoma
  • Bone cancer


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    Common childhood cancer symptoms

    Although common childhood cancers differ vastly there are some general symptoms that you can look out for. If your child is displaying any of these you should take them to your GP.

    Symptoms to be aware of are:

  • Not able to wee, or blood in wee
  • An unexplained lump or firmness anywhere in the body
  • Swollen glands
  • Back pain that doesn't go away
  • Persistent headaches
  • Frequent bruising Feeling tired all the time
  • Unexplained fits (seizures) or changes in vision or behaviour
  • Abdominal pain or swelling all the time
  • Unexplained vomiting
  • Unexplained sweating or fever
  • Unexplained weight loss or poor appetite
  • Changes in appearance of the eye or unusual eye reflections in photos
  • Frequent infections or flu-like symptoms


  • If you notice any of these symptoms persistently in your child, take them to your GP for diagnosis. It is normal for your GP to take note of these symptoms but ask you to wait to see if they subside before referring your child further, so don't be alarmed if you cannot get a diagnosis straight away. Certain symptoms will be treated immediately but this is down to your GPs judgement. If you have taken your child to the doctors 3 or more times for persistent symptoms that could be linked to cancer, they should refer you to a specialist.



    Causes of childhood cancer

    It's important to remember that cancer happens when random changes to DNA in our cells cause them to multiply uncontrollably and form tumours. No one really knows why children can develop cancer, as many of the usual causes don't apply to them.

    Research shows that certain lifestyle changes can help avoid cancer but it is difficult to say what could be contributing to childhood cancers specifically. There are some conditions and lifestyle factors that have been identified to heighten the chances of cancer.

    Inherited medical conditions

    Children who already suffer from a medical condition are more vulnerable to getting cancer. For example children with Downs Syndrome are 10 to 20 times more like to getting leukaemia.

    Problems with development in the womb

    Organs such as the kidneys and eyes are the first to develop in a baby whilst growing in the womb, sometimes these cells fail to mature and are especially vulnerable to causing problems later on in life, resulting in Wilms disease (kidney cancer in children) or Retinoblastomas (eye cancer in children).

    Exposure to radiation

    Strong radiation exposure has shown a link to developing cancerous cells, but it is very rare that any children in the UK would be exposed to a level of radiation that would do this.

    Some cancers are more common in children than others, most common being leukaemia and cancers of the brain and spinal cord. Following that cancer of the eye, nerve cells and kidney cancers are most common.

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    If you spot any signs or irregular behaviour in your child, it's always best to take them to the GP, just to be on the safe side.

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