September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. First recognized in October 1990, the month of September was officially designated Childhood Cancer Awareness Month in 2019 by Congress. Childhood cancer, or pediatric cancer, occurs in children and teenagers between the ages of 0 to 19. It is the number one cause of death by disease in children in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that approximately 15,000 children and teens are diagnosed with cancer annually in the United States.
The American Cancer Society (ACS) estimates that 9,910 children under the age of 15 and 5,280 adolescents will be diagnosed with cancer in 2023. Out of these, 1,040 children and 500 adolescents will die from the disease. However, the prognosis for children and adolescents has improved over the years. According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), in the 1970s, 58 percent of children aged 0 to 14 and 68 percent of adolescents aged 15 to 19 survived for at least five years after a cancer diagnosis. The percentage increased between 2011 and 2017: 84.7 percent of children aged 0 to 14 and 85.9 percent of adolescents aged 15 to 19 survived for at least five years after a cancer diagnosis. The Omnigraphics' Cancer Sourcebook sheds light on how doctors treat cancer and what life is like life after treatment.
Cancer warning signs in children may sometimes be overlooked or mistaken for ordinary childhood illnesses and injuries. Symptoms that parents and caregivers should watch out for include:
Childhood cancers are usually caused by cell DNA changes and not associated with lifestyle or environmental factors, unlike common adult cancers related to hazardous material exposure, smoking, and other factors. Children also respond better to treatment than adults; about 80 percent of children live for five years or more after a cancer diagnosis. Childhood cancers comprise more than 12 types and more than 100 subtypes, making them a diverse group of diseases. The following are the five most prevalent types of cancer in children:
Leukemia is the most common form of childhood cancer, accounting for approximately 28 percent of all pediatric cancers in the United States. This type of blood cancer occurs due to the abnormal growth of white blood cells (cells that fight infection), crowding out healthy blood cells. Leukemia starts in the bone marrow, where the body makes fresh blood that enters the bloodstream. The ACS reports that one out of three cases of childhood cancer is leukemia. The most common types of leukemia in children are acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL) and acute myeloid leukemia (AML). ALL can occur in children between the ages of two and four and is more prevalent in males than females. Three in four children with leukemia are diagnosed with ALL. Although AML is more common in adults, it can also occur in children. Acute leukemia is fast progressing and can spread to other organs such as the liver, spleen, and lymph nodes.
These tumors comprise 26 percent of all childhood cancers in the United States. A tumor is a mass of overgrown cells and can be benign (noncancerous) or malignant (cancerous). While brain tumors primarily originate in the cerebellum and brain stem, they occasionally spread to other parts of the brain, such as the cerebrum. Brain tumors can metastasize to the spinal cord tissue, but do not spread to other body parts. Causes of brain and spinal cord tumors in children are still unknown and, in rare cases, are attributed to genetics. Radiation treatment for a different condition is the only known environmental risk factor for brain tumors in children. According to the American Cancer Society, brain tumors in children (formed by different cell types) vary from those in adults and require a different treatment plan. According to the Cleveland Clinic, approximately 5,000 cases of pediatric brain tumors are recorded in the United States annually.
Tumors that form due to an overgrowth of immature nerve cells (neuroblasts) are called neuroblastomas and account for 6 percent of all pediatric cancers. The condition generally affects the nerve cells in the adrenal glands (located on top of the kidneys) but can also originate in the neck, chest, abdomen, and spinal cord. Neuroblastomas mostly occur in babies and children under age five and are rare in children over age 10. Neuroblastoma may spread to the skin, lymph nodes, liver, bone marrow, and bones. According to the ACS, approximately 700 to 800 cases of childhood neuroblastoma are reported in the United States each year.
Wilms tumor, also known as nephroblastoma, occurs in children aged three to four, accounting for 5 percent of all childhood cancers. Wilms tumor rarely occurs in children over the age of six. It usually forms in one kidney and very rarely in both. According to the ACS, nine out of ten kidney cancers in children are Wilms tumors. At present, there are no known causes of Wilms tumor except genetics in a few cases. Nearly 500 new cases of Wilms tumor are reported in the United States annually, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
Cancer that begins in the immune cells—lymphocytes—is called lymphoma. The condition usually starts in the lymph nodes and can spread to other organs. Lymphoma can be divided into two groups, Hodgkin lymphoma and non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Hodgkin lymphoma is rare in children below the age of five and occurs mainly in early and late adulthood. Non-Hodgkin lymphoma is more common in children aged 5 to 19 and is rare in infants. Hodgkin lymphoma accounts for 3 percent, and non-Hodgkin lymphoma makes up 5 percent of all childhood cancers. According to the Cleveland Clinic, nearly 800 to 1,000 cases of non-Hodgkin lymphoma are diagnosed in the United States every year.
More information on cancer in children and teens can be found in Omnigraphics’ Cancer Information for Teens.
A cancer diagnosis drastically alters the lives of children and their families. Today, numerous national and international organizations and pediatric cancer centers are dedicated to cancer research. Here are some resources for parents and caregivers:
U.S. residents may also call the National Cancer Institute's Cancer Information Service on their toll-free number, 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237)