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What are the Odds? The Actual Risk of Childhood Cancer

Cancer is scary at any age, but especially when it's a dire diagnosis for your little ones. Before you assume the worst, understand the real risks.


Take a breath. Childhood cancers are rare. They make up less than one percent of all diagnosed cancers, affecting more than 15,500 kids each year, according to The National Cancer Institute.

There are more than 74 million children in the United States. So the odds of your child developing cancer is about one in 5,000. Any amount of risk is too much for a parent. But to put it in perspective, you have a one in three chance of getting cancer in your lifetime.

While rare, the risk is still there. And catching cancer early is key to successful treatment.

Child with cancer and father

What causes childhood cancer?

Most of the time, we just don’t know. For adults, there’s a long list of lifestyle or environmental factors that increase your risk of cancer — things like smoking, sun exposure and obesity.

That’s not typically the case for kids. They haven’t lived long enough to experience the effects of an unhealthy lifestyle or environment. Cancer itself is the result of a gene mutation. About 10 percent of the time, it’s inherited from you or your spouse. The rest of the time, the cause is similar to cancer in adults — a mutated gene leads to uncontrollable cell growth and cancer.

What are the most common cancers in kids?

It’s a very different list than the cancers you’re used to hearing about. Adults are more likely to develop skin cancer, lung cancer, breast cancer, prostate cancer or colorectal cancer. Taking lifestyle and environmental factors out of the equation creates a different set of common cancers for children.

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1. Leukemia

Nearly a third of the time, it’s leukemia, a cancer of the blood and bone marrow. There are four main types of leukemia, but only the two acute types regularly occur in children — acute myeloid leukemia and acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

Acute leukemias are easier to cure than chronic ones. But they grow quickly and must be caught early on. Leukemia affects blood cells, so symptoms can show up in a variety of ways and parts of the body:

  • Fatigue, dizziness, weakness, shortness of breath, pale skin and feeling cold due to low red blood cell counts
  • Infections and fevers from a lack of protection from white blood cells
  • Easy bruising or bleeding, frequent bloody noses or bleeding gums from a shortage of blood platelets
  • Bone and joint pain
  • Weight loss and loss of appetite

2. Spinal Cord and Brain Tumors

A quarter of childhood cancers are in the brain or central nervous system. Pediatric brain tumors typically start in the cerebellum or brain stem, two lower portions of the brain. Tumors in the spinal cord are less likely but are grouped together with brain tumors because they both affect the central nervous system.

Symptoms of brain cancer can come on slowly. Your child may have headaches, nausea and vomiting, balance problems, drowsiness, behavior changes or blurred vision. Sometimes, the first thing you notice is a seizure. It’s more likely that these symptoms are caused by other issues, but an MRI or CT scan can show if there’s a brain or spinal cord tumor.

3. Lymphoma

You’re accustomed to checking for swollen lymph nodes. It’s a common sign that your child is sick. In rare cases — eight percent of pediatric cancers — swollen lymph nodes are a sign of lymphoma. The same two types of lymphoma that affect adults develop in kids:

  • Hodgkin lymphoma – The less common of the two in people of all ages, Hodgkin lymphoma is more likely to develop in teenagers and extremely unlikely to occur in infants and toddlers.
  • Non-Hodgkin lymphoma – The opposite is true for Non-Hodgkin lymphoma — younger children, three and above, are more likely to get it. Overall, it accounts for five percent of childhood cancers.

The treatments are different for the two types of pediatric lymphoma but many of the symptoms are the same. In addition to enlarged lymph nodes in the neck, armpits or groin, your child may get a fever, have the sweats, feel tired and lose weight from poor appetite.

4. Neuroblastoma

Neuroblastoma is a cancer of the sympathetic nervous system and causes tumors to grow on the nerves in the abdomen, neck or pelvis. Only six percent of childhood cancers are neuroblastomas. But it’s the most common type found in infants and, sometimes, even forms before birth.

You’d likely notice a large lump or some swelling on your child’s belly or pelvic region, signaling the spot of the tumor. The lump may affect their appetite and, eventually, their weight. And they may often complain that their belly hurts or that they’re full.

5. Wilms Tumor

A lump or swelling in your child’s belly could also be a Wilms tumor. This type of kidney cancer accounts for five percent of all childhood cancers. Unlike neuroblastoma, a Wilms tumor isn’t usually painful. But it can still affect appetite. Other common symptoms include:

  • Fever
  • Nausea
  • Constipation
  • Blood in the urine
  • Shortness of breath

Wilms tumors are most often found in three- and four-year-olds. They’re extremely rare after the age of six, so you don’t have to worry about it as your child hits school age.

What if I spot one of these signs of cancer in my children?

Collectively, the five most common childhood cancers make up more than 80 percent of all cases. But remember, they’re still rare — especially in Iowa.

The latest incidence data from the Iowa Department of Public Health counted only 72 cases of childhood cancer in 2016. There are nearly 830,000 kids in Iowa. So that means the chances your child has cancer is around one in 11,000 — half the risk of the national average.

Don’t jump to the worst-case scenario if you see any of the common cancer symptoms. They’re also common signs of plenty of less frightening health conditions. It’s much more likely that your child has something else or nothing at all.

No matter what, if you see something concerning or symptoms get worse over time, schedule an appointment with your pediatrician. Your watchful eye and knowledge of your kid’s health will help them order the tests to make a diagnosis. And in the unlikely event that it’s cancer, you’ve done your part in detecting the signs early so that your child can be treated and cured.

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