Every cell in the body has a system that controls its growth, interaction with
other cells, and even its life span. When certain cells lose that control and
grow in a way that the body can no longer regulate, it's called cancer.
Different kinds of cancer have different signs, symptoms, treatments, and outcomes,
depending on the type of cell involved and how fast the cells grow.
What Is Cancer?
All kinds of cancer progress in the same way — cells grow out of control,
develop abnormal sizes and shapes, exceed their typical boundaries inside the body,
and destroy neighboring cells. ln time, cancerous cells can spread (metastasize)
to other organs and tissues.
As cancer cells grow, they demand more and more of the body's nutrition. Cancer
takes a person's strength, destroys organs and bones, and weakens the body's defenses
against other illnesses.
Most of the time, doctors don't know why kids get cancer. The things that cause
cancer in kids are usually not the same ones that cause cancer in adults, such as
smoking or exposure to environmental toxins. In children, a genetic condition, such
as Down syndrome,
can sometimes increase the risk of cancer. Kids who have had chemotherapy or radiation
treatment for cancer are more likely to get cancer again.
In most cases, however, childhood cancers come from random mutations (changes)
in the genes of growing cells. Because these changes happen randomly and unpredictably,
there is no effective way to prevent them.
Sometimes, a doctor might spot early symptoms of cancer at regular checkups. However,
some symptoms of cancer (such as fever, swollen glands, frequent infections,
anemia, or bruises) can happen with other childhood infections or conditions that
are more common than cancer. Because of this, both doctors and parents might suspect
other childhood illnesses when cancer symptoms first appear.
Once cancer has been diagnosed, it's important for parents to seek help from a
medical center that specializes in pediatric oncology (treatment of childhood cancer).
The treatment of cancer in children can include surgery (to remove cancerous cells
or tumors), chemotherapy
(the use of medical drugs to kill cancer cells), radiation
(the use of radiant energy to kill cancer cells), and bone
Doctors may use one or more of these treatments for a child who has cancer. The
type of treatment needed depends on the child's age, the type of cancer, and how severe
the cancer is.
For children with leukemia or lymphoma, surgery is not usually the main treatment.
This is because leukemia and lymphoma involve the circulatory
system and the lymphatic
system, two systems that are located throughout the body. This makes it hard to
treat these cancers by operating on just one area.
However, in children with solid tumors that haven't spread to other parts of the
body, surgery can often effectively remove cancer when used in combination with chemotherapy
Chemotherapy (chemo) is medicine that can eliminate cancer cells in the body. Kids
with cancer can take the chemotherapy medications intravenously (through
a vein) or orally (by mouth). Some forms of chemotherapy can be given
intrathecally, or into the spinal fluid. The drugs enter the bloodstream
and work to kill cancer cells throughout the body.
How long chemo lasts and the type and number of different drugs used depends on
the type of cancer and how well a child's body responds to the treatment. Every child's
treatment is different, so a child may receive daily, weekly, or monthly chemotherapy
treatments. The doctor also may recommend cycles of treatment, which allow the body
to rest and recover between periods of chemo.
All of the medicines used in chemotherapy carry the risk of both short-term and
long-term problems. In the short term after getting chemotherapy, a child might have:
Because chemotherapy destroys bone marrow (the spongy tissue inside some bones
that helps the immune system by making blood cells), it can increase the risk of infections.
Some drugs irritate the bladder and may cause bleeding
into the urine, hearing loss, and liver damage. Others may cause heart and skin
can include infertility,
growth problems, organ damage, or increased risk of other cancers. Doctors always
take side effects into account before giving chemotherapy and may use medicines to
protect patients against as many of the side effects as possible.
Radiation is one of the most common treatments for cancer. A child who receives
radiation therapy is treated with a stream of high-energy particles or waves that
destroy or damage cancer cells. Many types of childhood cancer are treated with radiation
along with chemotherapy or surgery. Radiation has many potential side effects (such
as increased risk of future cancer and infertility).
Bone Marrow Transplants
Kids with certain types of cancer may receive bone marrow transplants. If a child
has a type of cancer that affects the function of blood cells, a bone marrow transplant
(along with chemo to kill the defective cells) may allow new, healthy cells to grow.
Bone marrow transplants are also sometimes used to treat cancer that does not involve
blood cells because they allow doctors to use higher doses of chemotherapy than a
child would normally be able to take.
Coping With Cancer
The main goal when treating kids with cancer is to cure them. This takes priority
over everything else, even if it means unwanted side effects as a result of treatment.
Thankfully, many medicines and therapies can make kids more comfortable while undergoing
treatment for cancer.
When possible, kids should be involved with their own cancer treatment. Talk to
your child in language he or she will understand and explain the facts about the specific
type of cancer and its effects. However, when cancer affects younger children —
toddlers and those younger than age 4 — simply telling them that they are
"sick" and need "medicine" to get better may be enough of an explanation. For all
age groups, the goal is to prevent fear and misunderstanding.
Many kids might feel guilty, as if the cancer is somehow their fault. Psychologists,
social workers, and other members of the cancer treatment team can be a great help
in reassuring and helping them with their feelings.
If your child is diagnosed with cancer, look to the cancer treatment team to help
guide your family through the pain, uncertainty, and disruptions caused by cancer.
If necessary, the team can also contact or visit your child's school to explain the
diagnosis to teachers and classmates. Replacing fear and misunderstanding with compassion
and information is an important part of helping kids with cancer cope with the
The diagnosis and treatment of childhood cancers takes time, and there are both
short-term and long-term side effects. But thanks to medical advances, more and more
kids with cancer are finishing successful treatment, leaving hospitals, and growing
up just like everybody else. Today, more than 80% of all children with cancer live
5 years or more.