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Understanding the Types of Childhood Cancer

Childhood cancers can be quite different from adult cancers. They may have different causes, affect different parts of the body, and require different treatments. Since symptoms and treatments can vary significantly, it's important for parents to learn about each type of cancer and how it works. Here’s what you should know about childhood cancer.

How childhood cancer works

Childhood cancer is an illness that causes healthy cells in the body to grow abnormally and forms tumors that can spread to other tissues. While cancer affects both adults and children, the causes vary significantly. Adult cancers may be a result of lifestyle and environmental factors, but childhood cancers aren't as well understood. Many childhood cancers could occur due to gene mutations that cause uncontrolled cell growth. These mutations can occur at different stages in a child's life, and some mutations may even begin while the fetus is still developing.

Only around 5% of cancer-causing genes are inherited.1 Most other cases tend to be unpredictable and random. By learning more about the common types of childhood cancers, families can be more prepared in case of a diagnosis.

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Leukemias are the most common childhood cancer, and generally affect the bone marrow and blood. Around 28% of all cancers in children are some forms of leukemia.2 The survival rate for this type of cancer is considered high, thanks to improved treatments over the past few decades.

Other childhood leukemias include acute myeloid leukemia (AML), chronic myeloid leukemia (CML), and chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL). Leukemia symptoms may look like joint pain, fatigue and weakness, pale skin, easy bruising, bleeding, and weight loss.

Brain and spinal cord tumor

Brain and spinal cord tumors are other forms of childhood cancers. The form of brain and spinal cord cancer depends on which cells and tissues are affected. Most brain and spinal cord cancers start out in the glial cells, or the supporting cells of the brain.

The prognosis and outlook for this type of cancer differ can depend on the type of tumor and its location. General symptoms may include headaches, nausea, and vomiting. During a child's early years, symptoms may manifest as loss of appetite, developmental delays, or a decline in intellectual or physical abilities.


Lymphomas are also a common childhood cancer. Lymphomas affect the lymph nodes or other lymph tissues like the tonsils or thymus. They generally begin in immune cells called lymphocytes. Symptoms may include fever, sweating, fatigue, weight loss, and swollen lymph nodes.


Neuroblastoma tends to affect infants and very young children. Neuroblastoma starts in the early forms of nerve cells found in a developing embryo or fetus. Neuroblastomas often begin in the abdomen. Some grow and spread quickly, while others take time to grow.

Look for common symptoms like swelling in the stomach, weight loss, trouble breathing, bone pain, and loss of appetite.

Other types of childhood cancers

In addition to the common types of childhood cancer mentioned above, here are some other forms of cancer in children to be aware of:

Wilms tumor

Also called nephroblastoma, a Wilms tumor starts in one or both kidneys. Like some other childhood cancers, symptoms include fever, pain, nausea, and poor appetite.


Rhabdomyosarcoma (RMS) is the most common soft tissue cancer seen in some children. It starts in cells that develop into skeletal or voluntary muscles in areas such as the head, neck, abdomen, arm, or leg. It may begin as a swelling or lump and cause pain. The symptoms of rhabdomyosarcoma vary based on where the tumor forms. For example, tumors in the abdomen may cause vomiting, stomach pain, or constipation, while children with tumors in the ear or nasal sinuses may experience earaches, headaches, and nosebleeds.3


Retinoblastoma is a type of eye cancer. Retinoblastoma is a result of mutations within the RB1 gene. Depending on the mutations and their timing, the type of cancer could be congenital retinoblastoma, which is heritable, or sporadic retinoblastoma, which is non-heritable.4 Retinoblastomas are usually detected when a parent or doctor finds that a child's eye looks unusual.

How can childhood cancer be treated?

The survival rate for childhood cancer can be high, especially for the more common blood cancers. Depending on the type of cancer a child has, doctors may recommend different types of treatments. These treatment options for childhood cancer are largely dependent on the type and stage of the disease.

Get a quote for cancer insurance

Now that you know more about childhood cancer, you may be better equipped to deal with a diagnosis. While it's possible to treat and manage many childhood cancers, it's normal for parents and families to need financial help and support. For affected children and families, seeking out aid and emotional support networks can be beneficial.

Cancer insurance can also be a big help. In addition to helping caregivers with the costs of treatments and procedures not covered by health insurance, cancer insurance can help you pay for groceries, rent, mortgage payments, or any expenses that make life easier for your child and family. Chat with an Aflac agent today to learn how we can help better financially protect you and your loved ones.

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