Childhood Cancer: Is Your Child at Risk for the Most Common Types?

As a parent, the words “childhood cancer” strike fear into my heart. I remember when my son was complaining of bone pain in his legs my mind went to “bone cancer.” Turns out it was growing pains! Of course it was! The chances of childhood cancer striking my son are low, right?

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I’ve always been one of those “worst case scenario” type of people, imagining the absolute worst right off the bat. After dealing with infertility for six years, though, I have this horrible fear of losing my son. Then again, I think any parent- fertility problems or not- worries about losing their child.

Childhood Cancer is the LEADING cause of death in kids ages 1 through 14!

Wow, that makes it even scarier, doesn’t it? The leading cause!  Before we all start panicking though, let’s look at the basic facts.

Childhood cancer only makes up about 1% of all cancer cases diagnosed. While numbers are on the rise, about 11,700 kids were diagnosed with childhood cancer in 2012, according to Cancer.org . With new medical innovations, the 5-year and beyond survival rate is up to 80%.

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What should we take away from this? First, childhood cancer is relatively rare. Second, although the rates are slightly on the rise, so is the survival rate. Cancer does not have to be a death sentence for your child. Yes, it’s still scary. Yes, we will still worry. But understanding the facts does help ease my mind a little bit!

Is your child at risk for the most common types of childhood cancer?

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Obviously, before you can answer that, you need to know what the most common types of childhood cancer are, right? There are actually eight most common types of childhood cancer. They are:

  • Leukemia makes up about 31% of childhood cancers, making it the most common type. The two most common types are acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL) and acute myelogenous leukemia (AML). This type of cancer starts in the bone marrow and blood.
  • Brain and other central nervous system tumors account for 25%, making them the second most common.  There are many different types of tumors, but the majority of them start in the brain stem.
  • Neuroblastoma actually starts in utero, where it attacks the nerve stem cells. It typically manifests into cancer in children under age 10. Neuroblastoma accounts for about 6% of all childhood cancer cases.
  • Wilms tumor makes up 5% of the cases. It starts in the kidney.  It usually affects just one although in rare cases both. Wilms tumor typically strikes before the age of 5.
  • Lymphoma: Both Hodgkin and non-Hodgkin Lymphomas make up about 4% of cases each. These types of cancer typically attack the lymph nodes.
  • Rhabdomyosarcoma accounts for 3% of childhood cancers. It affects the skeletal muscle.
  • Retinoblastoma is cancer of the eye. It makes up about 2% of all cases, and rarely strikes children after age 6.
  • Bone cancer consists of two different types. Osteosarcoma makes up 3% of childhood cancers, while Ewing Sarcoma comes in at just 1%. Both are typically found in older children and teens.

What are the risk factors for childhood cancer?

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While the risk factors can vary slightly among the different types of cancers, there are a few elements that appear quite often across the disease spectrum.

  • Genetic factors and family history: The cancer research community tends to go back and forth quite a bit on whether genetic factors play a huge role in childhood cancer risks. A history of cancer in the family does tend to raise the risk of your child getting it. Still, every member of your family could have cancer and your child could be just fine. Genetics are still a great mystery to us. We’ve only begun to start scraping the surface of the roles our genes play in disease.
  • Inherited Syndromes. Some types of inherited syndromes can increase the risk of cancer in children. Downs Syndrome, for example, increases the risk of leukemia.
  • Radiation exposure. While the chances of a single childhood x-ray causing cancer are incredibly low, repeated radiation exposure has been linked to an increased risk for brain and nervous system tumors as well as rhabdomyosarcoma. In the second one, x-rays during pregnancy upped the risk.
  • Mother’s use of drugs and alcohol. Drugs and alcohol usage during pregnancy can harm your baby in so many ways! While the studies are limited, preliminary research has found that a mother’s use of marijuana and cocaine during pregnancy can increase the risk of rhabdomyosarcoma.
  • A history of Epstein-Barr virus (aka “mono). Children who have had mono are at a slightly higher risk of developing lymphoma than those who never had the virus. If your child had mono at some point, please don’t panic. It still accounts for a very small percentage of childhood cancer cases!
  • Gender. Boys tend to be at a higher risk for most types childhood cancers than girls.
  • Environmental factors. Like genetics, scientists are still trying to figure out how much of a role environmental factors play in childhood cancer. Exposure to certain toxins may increase the risk. It seems logical that they would. Not to get all conspiracy-theorist on you, but I think a lot of the research is being held back because there are some very big names attached to the cause of those toxins!

Does childhood obesity cause childhood cancers? We talked about that in a previous article. Technically, childhood obesity is not a major risk factor for cancer in children, but it may increase the risk in adults.

Does understanding the types of childhood cancer and the general risk factor put your mind at ease at all? I know it does for me. I’ll still worry. I’m a mother. No mother can stop worrying completely! Still, knowing that it’s rare and that my son has very few of the risk factors (aside from being  a boy!) does put my mind at ease.

6 thoughts on “Childhood Cancer: Is Your Child at Risk for the Most Common Types?”

  1. Great information. I think most moms are prepared to be on teh lookout for common illness symptoms like feaver, rashes, etc but we don’t think about preparing ourselves to “Catch” signs of cancer but its definitely important to educate ourselves on it.

  2. Our neighbors daughter recently passed away from childhood cancer. It is such a scary scenario. They didn’t have any of the high risk factors and it still hit their family. It really brings it to light for all of us. You just never know.

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