The Biology of Childhood Cancer: Understanding and Supporting Young Patients
Cancer is a complex group of diseases that affects people of all ages. In children, cancer manifests differently than in adults, with distinct types and treatment approaches. The primary characteristic of this diagnosis is the uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells, overpowering healthy cells. Cancers that children develop are called pediatric cancers. Common types of childhood cancers include leukemia, lymphoma brain and spinal cord tumors, Wilms tumor, neuroblastoma, bone cancer, retinoblastoma, and rhabdomyosarcoma.
According to WHO, approximately 400,000 children and teens between the ages of 0-19 develop cancer each year. It is also estimated that in the US alone, 43 children are diagnosed daily. However, thanks to advancements in medical treatments such as surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy, the prognosis for these children has significantly improved in recent decades.
Types of Childhood Cancer
1 in 3 kids who have cancer has leukemia. This makes it the most common type of cancer in children. There are two main categories of leukemia:
- Acute leukemia: As the name suggests, it is aggressive and needs prompt treatment. Acute leukemia starts in white blood cells called lymphocytes.
- Acute myeloid leukemia: Also referred to as acute myelocytic leukemia, acute myelogenous leukemia, acute granulocytic leukemia, and acute non-lymphocytic leukemia. This is a type of blood cancer that starts in the bone marrow when bone marrow cells do not grow to maturity. These immature cells, called blast, build up in the body causing acute myeloid leukemia.
Brain and Spinal Cord Tumors
When abnormal cells group together, they could form a solid mass of tissue called a tumor. Tumors can be benign, meaning they are harmless, while others can be malignant, which means they are made of cancer cells.
Doctors are not sure what causes brain and spinal tumors in children. About 26% of childhood cancers are brain and spinal cord tumors.
Neuroblastomas are tumors that start in nerve cells. They make up about 6% of childhood cancers. Symptoms generally include a lump or swelling around the tummy, legs, upper chest, neck, or face.
Wilms tumors are tumors that form in the kidneys. They make up about 4% of childhood cancers. Symptoms include a swollen belly or lump in the area.
Lymphoma is a cancer of the lymphatic system – including the lymph nodes, spleen, thymus gland, and bone marrow. There are many types of lymphoma but the main types are Hodgkin’s and Non-Hodgkin’s.
Rhabdomyosarcoma is a soft tissue tumor that can develop in the muscle, fat, blood vessels, or other tissues that surround and support organs. According to ACS, most instances of rhabdomyosarcoma occur in children and adolescents.
Osteosarcoma is the most common bone cancer occurance in children. Osteosarcoma affects nearly 400 children each year.
Retinoblastoma is a very rare form of cancer that occurs in the retina of the eye.
These are just a few of the main types of childhood cancer. When diagnosed early, cancer is more likely to respond to effective treatment with an improved survival rate, less suffering, and less expensive and intensive treatment. Education and awareness of symptoms by families and primary care providers are vital for early detection. Parents have the obligation to educate themselves, ask questions, and take precautions.
Childhood cancers generally respond better to treatment than adult cancers due to their faster growth rate, which makes them more susceptible to chemotherapy and radiation. The goal of treatment is to eliminate or destroy abnormal cells through various methods, including surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, or a combination.
Remission and relapse are two terms commonly used when discussing cancer. Remission occurs when no detectable signs of cancer remain, while relapse refers to the return of the disease after a period of improvement. If a complete remission continues for several years, doctors may consider the patient “cured.”
Side Effects of Childhood Cancer
The side effects of childhood cancer vary widely by diagnosis and treatment. A multidisciplinary team of healthcare professionals, including physicians, nurses, therapists, dietitians, and social workers, among others, work together to maximize the physical and emotional well-being of young patients.
Cancer and its treatments can cause physical changes such as weight fluctuations, mood swings, coordination problems, hair loss, and surgical scars. These changes may lead to fear, teasing, and rejection from peers, which can affect a child’s self-esteem and social interactions.
One important aspect of treatment is to address the emotional and psychosocial needs of the child and the entire family. It is important that families find a community of support to lean on during difficult times.
Camp Rainbow Gold provides a welcoming space for entire families, children with cancer, and their siblings to connect at summer camp or other year-round events. Through empowering activities, challenges, teamwork, laughter, and the power of the great outdoors, families can begin to heal through connection and community.