A cancer diagnosis is never welcome news. But such news is even more difficult when delivered to a child. Adding to that heartbreak is the fact that childhood cancers are often more aggressive than adult cancers.
Cancers of the lung, breast and colon, while relatively common among adults, are rarely diagnosed in children or adolescents. Childhood cancers are rare, so while the average man or woman might be familiar with lung or colon cancer, that familiarity does not typically extend to childhood cancers. The following is a brief rundown of some childhood cancers. For more extensive information about the various types of childhood cancers, visit the American Childhood Cancer Organization at www.acco.org.
Leukemias occur when abnormal white blood cells, known as leukemia cells, are produced in the bone marrow. These cells are cancerous and, unlike normal white blood cells, they are unable to function as immune cells. As the abnormal cells continue to populate the bone marrow, they begin to push out normal white and red blood cells and platelets. This compromises the body’s ability to prevent infection and carry oxygen, which causes blood clots. So a child with leukemia is susceptible to infection and bruising and will commonly appear very pale. The most common leukemias in children are acute lymphoblastic leukemia, or ALL, and acute myeloid leukemia, or AML.
Childhood lymphomas are cancers that develop in the lymph system, where a fluid called lymph is carried. Lymph contains white blood cells that help fight infections. When a malignancy develops in the lymph system, which connects lymph nodes in the neck, armpit and groin with the spleen, thymus and parts of the tonsils, it can spread throughout the rest of the system before it is even detected. Lymphomas are classified as Hodgkin’s or non-Hodgkin’s, which is the more common lymphoma in children. Lymphomas are often characterized by swollen lymph nodes in the neck, armpit or groin, and additional symptoms may include, but are not limited to, swelling of the face, abdominal pain, unexplained fever, and difficulty breathing.
Brain cancers are the second most common type of cancers in children. Many different types of brain tumors can develop in children, which can make it difficult for those unfamiliar with pediatric brain tumors to understand them. The process of classifying these tumors is evolving, but many brain tumors are currently named for the type of cell where the tumor originated and the location of the tumor itself. That location can affect treatment, as the tumor may be inaccessible or located in such a place that can jeopardize a developing brain upon surgical removal of the tumor. Location of the tumor may also dictate symptoms, as where a tumor is located may be reflected in behavior exhibited by the child. Seizures not related to fever, persistent vomiting without a known cause, progressive weakness or clumsiness, walking and balance problems, vision problems, and headaches that wake a child up at night or appear early in the morning are just a few of the potential indicators of brain tumors. The ACCO notes that children are unlikely to report symptoms of brain tumors, so adults must be especially observant and aware of the signs of pediatric brain tumors.
A childhood cancer diagnosis is never easy to receive. But adults who understand childhood cancers may be in a better position to recognize and help youngsters battling the disease.