(888) 552-6760 SCHEDULE A CONSULTATION

Signs and symptoms of cancer in children

This page was reviewed under our medical and editorial policy by

Maurie Markman, MD, President, Medicine & Science at CTCA.

This page was updated on June 9, 2022.

Symptoms of cancer in children are not always obvious. Recognizing the signs of cancer in children can help you know when to check with your child’s pediatrician.

This guide covers what you should know about the signs of cancer to look out for in your child.

Symptoms of cancer in children

There isn’t one single tell-tale sign that a child has cancer. Cancer can cause symptoms in children that are very similar to the symptoms of many other common illnesses and injuries. Some of the most common symptoms of cancer in children include:

  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • Swollen glands
  • Weight loss
  • Bruises
  • Joint or bone tenderness

Certain types of cancer are more common than others in children. These cancers make up more than half of all childhood cancers and occur most frequently in this order:

  1. Leukemias
  2. Brain and other central nervous system tumors
  3. Lymphomas

Each of these cancers has a different set of symptoms. Some of the symptoms of specific types of cancer that are most likely to occur in children (19 and younger) include those below.

Leukemias

Leukemias are cancers of the blood. In children, leukemias can cause:

  • Bone and joint pain
  • Fatigue
  • Weakness
  • Pale skin
  • Bleeding
  • Bruising
  • Fever
  • Weight loss

This cancer is most frequently diagnosed in children between ages 1 and 4, but it can be diagnosed at any time up to age 19.

Brain and spinal cord tumors

  • Brain and central nervous system tumors can cause:
  • Headaches
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Blurred or double vision
  • Dizziness
  • Seizures
  • Trouble walking or handling objects

Lymphomas

Cancers starting in the lymph nodes or lymph tissues are known as lymphomas. The two types are Hodgkin lymphoma and non-Hodgkin lymphoma, depending on the cell characteristics. Lymphoma can cause:

  • Lumpy or swollen lymph nodes under the skin in the neck, armpit or groin
  • Weight loss
  • Fever
  • Sweats
  • Tiredness

Neuroblastoma

Neuroblastoma is a kind of nerve-cell cancer that occurs mostly in children younger than 10. It can cause symptoms like abdomen swelling, bone pain and fever.

Wilms tumor

Wilms tumor is a type of kidney tumor that typically affects children ages 3 and 4.

Signs of Wilms tumors include:

  • Swelling or lumps in the abdomen
  • Fever
  • Pain
  • Nausea
  • Reduced appetite

Rhabdomyosarcoma

Rhabdomyosarcoma is a type of cancer that develops in the cells of muscles used to control body parts (voluntary muscles). It can occur virtually anywhere in the body, and often causes a lump or swelling that continues to get bigger. It may also cause other symptoms, depending on where the tumor forms.

Retinoblastoma

Retinoblastomas are a type of cancer of the eye. Retinoblastoma can cause the pupil (the small black circle in the middle of the eye) to look white or pink.

Bone cancers

Osteosarcoma is a bone cancer that mostly affects teens. Bone pain and swelling in the lower leg or arm bones are the most common symptoms, with the pain worsening at night or after activity.

Another bone cancer that affects teens is Ewing sarcoma, a type of tumor of the soft tissue or bone. It can develop in many parts of the body, such as the legs, arms, feet, hands, chest, pelvis, spine or skull, and may cause swelling or pain near the site of the tumor.

When you should see a doctor about symptoms

Early symptoms of cancer in children tend to be similar to symptoms of other less-serious conditions, so they can be easy to miss. For instance, you may not associate your child’s fatigue or joint pain to leukemia, which is the most common type of cancer in children. You may dismiss it as growing pains. But if you notice something is off with your child, or they tell you about a new and persistent symptom they’re feeling, it’s always a good idea to check with your child’s pediatrician.

If you notice any of these symptoms in your child, contact his or her doctor:

  • Unusual mass or swelling
  • Unexplained paleness or worsening rash
  • Loss of energy for no obvious reason
  • Unusual behavior or movements
  • Sudden tendency to bruise or bleed easily
  • Lasting pain in any part of the body
  • Unexplained fever that doesn't go away
  • Frequent headaches, often with vomiting
  • Sudden eye or vision changes
  • Unexpected, rapid weight loss

When children show symptoms of cancer that last for a while or cause a great deal of pain or discomfort, doctors may recommend certain tests to rule out other causes before checking for cancer. Cancer tests and procedures vary depending on the type of cancer suspected. Tests may include physical exam, blood test, CT scan, MRI, PET/CT scan, X-ray, ultrasound or biopsy.

Show references
  • American Cancer Society (2020, August 25). Key Statistics for Childhood Cancers.
    https://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancer-in-children/keystatistics. html.
  • National Cancer Institute (2015, September). Children with Cancer: A Guide for Parents.
    https://www.cancer.gov/publications/patienteducation/ children-with-cancer.pdf.
  • National Cancer Institute (2020, August 28). Childhood Cancers.
    https://www.cancer.gov/types/childhood-cancers#types-of-cancer-in-children.
  • National Cancer Institute. Cancer Stat Facts (SEER).
    https://seer.cancer.gov/statfacts/.
  • American Cancer Society (2019, October 24). Types of Cancer that Develop in Children.
    https://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancer-inchildren/ types-of-childhood-cancers.html.
  • American Academy of Pediatrics (2020, March 30). Symptoms of Childhood &Adolescent Cancers.
    https://www.healthychildren.org/English/health-issues/conditions/cancer/Pages/Symptoms-of-Childhood-Cancers.aspx.