Types of Childhood Cancer
Childhood cancer is a general term that refers to a large group of diseases. There are dozens of childhood cancer types and many more subtypes. The types of cancer that occur in adults are different from the types of cancer that affect children. Pediatric cancers are rare, but can also be more aggressive than adult-onset cancers.
Cancers that develop in childhood require a multidisciplinary team of specialists for effective treatment. It’s important for your treatment team to understand each pediatric cancer type and subtype to determine the best cancer treatment options for your child.
The childhood cancers we treat at The University of Kansas Cancer Center include:
- Leukemia (acute lymphocytic leukemia and acute myeloid leukemia)
- Brain tumors
- Wilms tumor
- Lymphoma (both Hodgkin and non-Hodgkin)
- Sarcoma (bone cancer)
- Cancer in infants
- Sickle cell anemia
- Blood disorders
Leukemia is the most common type of childhood cancer, accounting for about 30% of all pediatric cancers. Childhood leukemia usually starts in the white blood cells and develops in the bone marrow. From there, cancer can spread to other areas of the body.
The most common types of childhood leukemia are acute lymphocytic leukemia and acute myelogenous leukemia. Both ALL and AML have different subtypes. Leukemias can be either acute (fast-growing) or chronic (slow-growing). Chronic leukemias are rarer, but also tend to be harder to treat.
Childhood brain tumors
Childhood brain cancers are the next most common type of pediatric cancer after leukemia. There are many different types of brain and central nervous system tumors, and each one has a different treatment and prognosis.
Neuroblastoma is a type of cancer that doctors rarely see in children older than 10. Neuroblastoma tumors begin during fetal development and are diagnosed most often in infants and young children. These tumors start out as nerve cell tissue and can form anywhere in the body, but most parents or children first notice them in the abdomen.
Wilms tumor, a type of childhood kidney cancer, is also known as nephroblastoma. Wilms tumors typically start in one kidney and rarely affect both. Uncommon in children who are older than 6, most cases of Wilms tumor affect children around age 3 or 4. Only about 5% of childhood cancers are Wilms tumors.
Childhood lymphoma usually starts in the lymph nodes or lymph tissues (like the tonsils) but can also affect bone marrow and other organs. Lymphoma is divided into 2 types:
- Hodgkin lymphoma is similar in both children and adults, and the same treatments tend to be effective for both.
- Non-Hodgkin lymphoma tends to grow more quickly in children than in adults, but children may also respond better to treatment.
Sarcoma (bone cancer)
There are 2 main types of primary bone cancer that develop in children:
- Osteosarcoma: Most common in teens, doctors often see osteosarcoma develop in the areas where bones grow quickly.
- Ewing sarcoma: Less common than osteosarcoma, Ewing sarcoma tends to start in the hips, ribs or shoulder blades.
Sarcomas can develop at any age, but doctors see more cases in older children and teenagers. Bone cancer can also begin as cancer elsewhere in the body that then spreads to the bones (metastasizes). In some cases, secondary bone cancer develops in response to treatments for a different type of cancer.
Cancer in infants
Some types of cancer can develop in infancy, including leukemia, brain tumors, neuroblastoma and retinoblastoma (cancer of the eye). Treating infants with cancer can be more challenging than treating children, teens or young adults. Babies metabolize medication differently and can be more sensitive to side effects. Also, infants’ immune systems have not fully developed yet, so they require close monitoring throughout their treatment.
Sickle cell anemia
Some children are born with sickle cell disease, a blood disorder that’s passed down from a child’s parents. Because SCD affects the red blood cells, children with sickle cell disease have a greater risk of developing childhood blood cancers such as leukemia. Treatments for SCD are similar to lymphoma and leukemia treatments.
Not all blood disorders are cancerous, but even benign (noncancerous) blood disorders can negatively affect a child’s health. Blood disorders can affect the red blood cells, white blood cells, platelets and even the bone marrow.
A genetic disorder, neurofibromatosis causes tumors to develop in nerve tissue. Neurofibromatosis can begin anywhere in the nervous system, including the nerves, spinal cord or brain. Doctors see most cases of neurofibromatosis in children or young adults.