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Types 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 reviewed on June 9, 2022.

The types of cancer that affect children are usually different from those you often hear about in adults. Many adult cancers may be linked to some sort of environmental cause such as smoking, alcohol use, diet or obesity. For example, smoking gives rise to the second most common type of cancer in adults: lung cancer.

Most childhood cancers are thought to be prompted by factors that are unrelated to your child's lifestyle or environment. The causes of childhood cancers are more mysterious. Most are thought to be caused by random, unpreventable genetic mutations that arise during one's life, even before birth, in the womb. Mutations build up over a lifetime, so cancer is more common in older people and rarer among children.

The genetic mutations in DNA and possible environmental exposures in children tend to be linked to certain types of cancers.

Most common cancer types in children and adolescents

The top three most common cancers among children and adolescents in the United States are:

  • Leukemias
  • Brain and spinal cord tumors
  • Lymphomas

After these three types, younger children (under the age of 14) are more likely to develop:

  • Soft tissue sarcomas (usually rhabdomyosarcoma)
  • Neuroblastoma
  • Kidney tumors

And, after the top three cancer types, teens (ages 15 to 19) more commonly develop:

  • Testicular or ovarian cancer
  • Thyroid cancer
  • Melanoma

Thanks to advances in detection and treatment, childhood cancer has become increasingly treatable. The National Cancer Institute reports that more than 80 percent of children with cancer now live for five or more years after their initial diagnosis. The five-year survival rate for many common childhood cancers has increased dramatically over the past few decades. Five years is considered a significant milestone, as some types of cancers are unlikely to return after this period of time.

This guide is designed to help you learn more about the types of cancers that most often affect children. Other types of cancers can occur in children, but these are the most prevalent.

Leukemia

Leukemias are the most common cancers in children. About 1 in 3 cases of childhood cancer are leukemias.

Leukemias start in blood cells that live in the bone marrow. Bone marrow is the soft, inner part of bones responsible for producing new blood cells.

Instead of creating important blood cells—like white blood cells to fight infections or red blood cells to carry oxygen throughout the body—the bone marrow of children with leukemia becomes filled with cancerous cells.

  • The most common types of leukemia are acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL) and acute myeloid leukemia (AML).
  • About 3 in 4 childhood leukemias are ALL, and many of the remaining cases are AML.

Symptoms of these types of leukemias may include:

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

In recent years, ALL has become more treatable, and around 90 percent of children now survive five years or more after their diagnosis. The survival rate for children with AML is approximately 65 to 70 percent.

Although leukemia is the most common type of childhood cancer, it’s no longer the leading cause of cancer death among children due to advancements in treatment. Brain cancer is now considered more deadly in children than leukemia.

Brain and spinal cord tumors

Brain and spinal cord tumors are the second most common type, accounting for about 26 percent of all childhood cancers.

These tumors—or masses of abnormal cells—may grow almost anywhere in the brain or spinal cord.

The types of brain and spinal cord tumors that may develop are diverse. Some may require different treatment strategies and come with varying rates of survival.

Brain tumors are more common than spinal cord tumors and may come with symptoms such as:

  • Headaches
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Blurred or double vision
  • Dizziness
  • Seizures
  • Trouble walking or handling objects

Among children with all types of brain tumors, around three out of four children survive at least five years after diagnosis, but the outlook can be worse or better depending on the type of tumor and other factors.

Lymphoma

Lymphoma is a type of cancer that develops in the body's lymph system, including the lymph nodes, spleen, bone marrow, tonsils and the digestive tract.

It starts when a particular type of white blood cell, called a lymphocyte, turns into a lymphoma cell.

The cancer's location can affect what kind of symptoms a child will develop, but some of the more common symptoms are:

  • Weight loss
  • Fever
  • Sweats
  • Fatigue
  • Swollen lymph nodes under the skin of the neck, armpit or groin

The two main types of lymphoma are:

  • Non-Hodgkin lymphomas, which account for around 5 percent of all childhood cancers and is more common in younger children
  • Hodgkin lymphoma, which accounts for roughly 3 percent of all childhood cancers and occurs more often in teens (Unlike many other childhood cancers, this cancer is treated similarly in both adults and children.)

Rhabdomyosarcoma

Rhabdomyosarcoma (RMS) is a type of cancer that attacks particular areas of muscle. It begins in cells that are supposed to evolve into muscle cells but instead become cancerous. It’s much more common in children and very rare in adults, because it affects early cells that are still developing.

RMS can grow almost anywhere in the body, but it often starts in the:

  • Arms
  • Legs
  • Head
  • Neck
  • Groin
  • Belly
  • Pelvis

Approximately 3 percent of childhood cancers are rhabdomyosarcomas, and half of all cases occur in children under 10. The survival rate depends on various factors, including where the cancer started and how much it’s spread. Around 70 percent of children survive five years or more after an RMS diagnosis.

Neuroblastoma

Neuroblastoma forms in still-developing nerve cells, often before a child is born. Because it’s a cancer that attacks developing cells, it is much more common in infants and young children. Almost 90 percent of cases are diagnosed by age 5, and it’s very rare past the age of 10.

About 6 percent of all childhood cancers are neuroblastomas. In infants, it’s the most common cancer. Although neuroblastomas can grow anywhere, they often originate in the belly, causing swelling. Other potential symptoms include bone pain and fever.

Wilms tumor

Wilms tumor, a type of cancer that affects the kidneys, is diagnosed on average in children ages 3 to 4. It accounts for roughly 5 percent of all childhood cancers, and it’s more common in young children. About 90 percent of kidney cancers in children are Wilms tumors. It usually affects only one kidney, but it sometimes affects both.

A lump or swelling in the belly may be a possible sign of Wilms tumor, as can:

  • Fever
  • Pain
  • Nausea
  • Poor appetite

Often, the tumor is larger than the kidney itself before it’s noticed, but most Wilms tumors are detected before the cancer has spread.

Retinoblastoma

Retinoblastoma is a type of cancer that develops in the back of the eye (the retina). Typically, it only affects one eye.

It’s most prevalent in infants and young children and rarely occurs in children older than 6. Roughly 2 percent of childhood cancers are retinoblastomas.

A doctor should be able to detect retinoblastoma during an eye exam. When light is shined on an eye with retinoblastoma, the pupil appears white or pink, while a healthy pupil usually looks red under direct light.

In the United States, nearly all (9 out of 10) children with retinoblastoma continue to have no evidence of disease after completing treatment.

Bone cancer (including osteosarcoma and Ewing sarcoma)

Around 3 percent of all childhood cancers begin in the bones. Bone cancer is more common in older children and teens.

There are two main types of bone cancer:

Osteosarcoma is particularly prevalent in teens and usually develops in the fastgrowing ends of long bones—like the knees. Symptoms may include bone pain and swelling in the affected area. Survival rates depend on the stage at the time of diagnosis. About 77 percent of patients survive five years or more when the cancer is caught in the early stages.

Ewing sarcomas are less common. When they do occur, they often are diagnosed in younger teens. They usually grow in the hip bones, ribs, shoulder blades or the middle of the leg bones, causing bone pain and swelling.

Show references
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