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Childhood Cancer

Posted Date: 8/27/2014
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Ask the Doctor

Dr. Joan Graziano, M.D.
Section Chief of Pediatric Hematology/Oncology and
Director of Pediatric Resident & Faculty Research at
Richmond University Medical Center


Childhood Cancer

September marks National Childhood Cancer Awareness Month; a time to honor and remember children and families affected by this disease and to rally support for groundbreaking research. 

Cancer is never an easy diagnosis, but it is especially hard when given to a child. Cancer is the leading cause of childhood death by disease in the United States, with 13,500 new diagnoses each year according to the American Cancer Institute. One out of every 300 boys and one out of every 333 girls will develop cancer before their 20th birthday, according to the American Society of Clinical Oncology.

Cancer occurs when cells that are not healthy, grow and spread quickly. Healthy body cells grow and divide and know to stop growing. Unlike healthy cells, cancer cells continue to grow and divide out of control. These cells do not serve the function they are supposed to perform, and sometimes block healthy cells from serving their functions.

What types of cancers occur in children?
The types of cancers that occur most often in children are different from those seen in adults. The most common cancers of children include leukemia, brain and other central nervous system tumors, lymphoma (including both Hodgkin and non-Hodgkin), and bone cancer.

What causes cancer in children?
The causes of most pediatric cancers remain a mystery and cannot be prevented. Unlike most adult cancers, they are not the result of lifestyle choices like tobacco smoking or drinking excessive amounts of alcohol. Parents of children with cancer often blame themselves, but cancer in children is no one’s fault.

What are the symptoms of cancer?
There is no single set of symptoms for cancer. Instead, a child’s symptoms depend on the type of cancer and where the cancer is found. Cancers in children can be hard to recognize right away because early symptoms often overlap with those caused by much more common illnesses or injuries. Children often get sick or have bumps or bruises that might mask the early signs of cancer.

Parents should be sure that their children have regular medical check-ups and watch for any unusual signs or symptoms that do not go away. These include: an unusual lump or swelling, unexplained paleness and loss of energy, easy bruising, an ongoing pain in one area of the body, unexplained fever or illness that doesn’t go away, frequent headaches, or sudden eye or vision changes. Most of these symptoms are much more likely to be caused by something other than cancer, such as an injury or infection. Still, if your child has any of these symptoms, see a doctor so that the cause can be found and treated, if needed.

After diagnosis
The diagnosis of cancer in a child or teenager can be a devastating blow to parents and other family members. All parents seem to feel shock, disbelief, fear, guilt, sadness, anxiety, and anger. But in this situation, just about any feelings could be considered normal for parents and other family members.

In addition to parents and siblings, there are many other people involved in children’s everyday lives that are affected. This includes grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, teachers, schoolmates, and friends. These loved ones often have feelings much like those of parents and may struggle to manage many of the same emotions. It is important to remember that families dealing with this horrific disease do not have to feel alone. Supportive services are available at Richmond University Medical Center.

Dr. Joan Graziano is Section Chief of Pediatric Hematology/Oncology and Director of Pediatric Resident & Faculty Research at Richmond University Medical Center. For more information on pediatric cancer services, please call 718-818-1234.