Childhood Cancers Symptoms & Causes

LIke ThisLIke ThisLIke ThisLIke ThisLIke This

Contact the Cancer and Blood Disorders Center

What is cancer?

Cancer is an abnormal growth of cells. The cells are often shaped differently than healthy cells, don’t function properly and can spread to many areas of the body. Oncology is the study of cancer and tumors.

Tumors are clusters of cells that are capable of growing and dividing uncontrollably. They can be benign (non-cancerous) or malignant (cancerous):

  • Benign tumors tend to grow slowly and do not spread to other parts of the body.
  • Malignant tumors grow rapidly, can invade and destroy nearby normal tissues and can spread throughout the body.
  • Generally, malignant cancers are more serious and are more likely to be life threatening. However, sometimes a benign tumor can be difficult to treat because of its location, whereas certain kinds of malignant cancers respond very well to therapy. Your child’s physician can answer questions about the severity of your child’s specific type of cancer.

The term "cancer" is generally used when a tumor is malignant. There are two types of malignant tumors: locally invasive and metastatic:

  • locally invasive - the tumor can invade the tissues surrounding it by sending out 'fingers' of cancerous cells into the normal tissue.
  • metastatic - the tumor can send cells in the blood stream and through lymph nodes into other tissues in the body, which may be far away from the original tumor.

Staging is the process of finding out whether cancer has spread and if so, how far. There is more than one system used for staging, and your child’s physician can explain the stage of your child’s cancer.

It’s important to understand that cancer is not just one disease, but rather a group of diseases. All forms of cancer cause cells in the body to change and grow out of control.

How is pediatric cancer different from adult cancers?

There are big differences in the types of cancer and in survival rates. In general, childhood cancers are more successfully treated with a larger proportion of children cured compared with adult cancers. This difference is thought to be because childhood cancer is more responsive to therapy and a child can tolerate more intensive therapy when necessary.

What are the different types of childhood cancer?

Childhood cancers vary widely in how they affect a child, so how doctors diagnose and treat your child will depend on your child’s unique circumstances. For more information about specific cancers, choose one below.

Hematologic malignancies

Solid tumors

What causes cancer?

There is no one single cause of cancer. Researchers and physicians believe the interaction of many factors that produces cancer. The factors involved may be genetic, environmental or behavioral.

In almost all cases, the cause of childhood cancer is unknown.

What are the risk factors for cancer?

While the cause of cancer is generally unknown, some cancers, particularly in adults, have been associated with certain exposures or risk factors:

  • Lifestyle factors such as smoking, a high-fat diet and working with toxic chemicals may be risk factors for some adult cancers. Most children with cancer, however, are too young to have been exposed to these lifestyle factors for an extended time.
  • Family history, inheritance and genetics may play an important role in some childhood cancers.
  • Some genetic disorders (Wiskott-Aldrich syndrome and Beckwith-Wiedemann syndrome) are known to affect a child’s chance of developing cancer.
  • Exposures to certain viruses, such as the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), have been linked to an increased risk of developing certain childhood cancers such as Hodgkin and non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
  • Environmental exposures, such as pesticides, fertilizers and power lines, have been researched for a direct link to childhood cancers, but there has been no conclusive evidence that any of those factors has caused childhood cancer.
  • Some forms of high-dose chemotherapy and radiation have been linked to cancer. In some cases, children that have been exposed to these agents to treat cancer may develop a second cancer later in life.

How do genes affect cancer growth?

The discovery of certain types of genes that increase a person’s chances of developing cancer has been an extremely important development for cancer research. Genes make proteins. Altered genes (some of which carry errors called mutations) cause altered proteins, which in turn cause tumors. Researchers have observed that more than 90 percent of cancers have some type of genetic alteration. Some of these alterations are inherited, while others occur by chance or as the result of environmental exposures. Through clinical trials, Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center is using gene therapy – which introduces genetic material (DNA) into a patient’s cells to prevent or fight cancer – to treat certain pediatric cancers, blood disorders, and other conditions.

We are grateful to have been ranked #1 on U.S. News & World Report's list of the best children's hospitals in the nation for the third year in a row, an honor we could not have achieved without the patients and families who inspire us to do our very best for them. Thanks to you, Boston Children's is a place where we can write the greatest children's stories ever told.”
- Sandra L. Fenwick, President and CEO

Boston Children's Hospital 300 Longwood Avenue, Boston, MA 02115 617-355-6000 | 800-355-7944

Close