What are childhood cancers?


How does cancer affect the body?

Normally cells in our body work in a controlled way; they divide and form new cells to replace the old cells. When a person is suffering from cancer, body cells start to multiply in an uncontrolled manner. They damage the part of the body where they first start (primary tumour) and can spread to other parts of the body (secondary tumour or metastasis).

Children’s cancers are different to adult cancers. Things that cause adult cancers such as smoking and chemicals, do not cause children’s cancers. Children’s cancers occur in different parts of the body than adult cancers. They look different under the microscope and respond differently to treatment. Cure rates for children’s cancers are higher than those for adults.

In most cases, we don’t know why children get cancer. But research is going on to find the causes. We know it’s very rare for another child in a family to develop cancer. Sometimes two or three children at the same school or town develop cancer, but as far as we know this is a coincidence. Over the past fifteen years, the cure rates and remission rates have improved. This is due to availability of better treatments, a strengthened multidisciplinary team approach, and availability of more information from research and clinical trials. Inpatient stays are shorter and many procedures and treatments are now done as day procedures and don’t require overnight admission.

Cancer Types

The following flowchart lists the common childhood cancers and tests and treatments available to diagnose and treat childhood cancers.

Childhood cancers

Solid tumours

Some common types are:

  • Wilm’s tumour
  • Bone tumours
  • Lymphomas
  • Neuroblastoma


  • Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia – ALL (most common type in children)
  • Other leukaemias
  • Acute myeloid leukaemia – AML
  • Juvenile CMML
  • CML

Nervous System tumours

  • Medulloblastoma
  • Ependymoma
  • Other brain and spinal cord tumours

Tests and investigations to diagnose childhood cancers

  • Blood tests
  • X-rays
  • Scans
  • Bone marrow tests
  • Lumbar punctures

Tests and investigations to diagnose childhood cancers

  • Chemotherapy (drug therapy)
  • Radiation therapy
  • Surgery

Childhood cancers are commonly classified into solid tumours, leukaemias and tumors of the central nervous system.

Diagnosing cancer in children

In order to ascertain if any cancer cells are present, the consultant oncologist will usually order some tests to make an accurate diagnosis and assess the child’s general health. The tests will also enable the specialist to know where the cancer started and whether it has spread to other parts of the body, which is called staging.

Please remember that not all children have all the tests or procedures. The consultant oncologist will decide what tests are relevant, based on each individual case.

Doing the tests may delay the start of treatment for a few days, but it is important to get all the information together so that the right treatment is given. Descriptions of many tests and procedures are available here.

Some of the tests are repeated during treatment to monitor progress and check for any side effects. Some tests and procedures are painful. Pain management techniques and medications are routinely used to reduce the possible pain and to help your child during a painful procedure. Please ask any of the people in your child’s treating team about pain management.

Once it is established exactly what type of cancer your child has, your consultant oncologist will give you detailed information about it and the specific treatment. A written plan, called a roadmap, will show when your child will receive treatment. You can have a copy of this. If you have any questions, ask your consultant oncologist, one of the oncology ward doctors or your clinical nurse coordinator.

Treatment depends on the particular type of cancer and how much it has spread. There are three main types of treatment: chemotherapy (drug therapy), radiation therapy, and surgery. Not all children will require all these three types of treatments, your consultant will discuss the treatment needed to treat your child’s cancer. Learn more about treatments.

Was this article helpful?