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What Is Cancer?

Cancer in children: an overview

If your child or a child you know has been diagnosed with cancer, you are undoubtedly feeling shocked and scared. This is an extremely difficult and confusing time. But you are not alone. Innovative treatments and support networks are available.

Your first question most likely is: What is childhood cancer? And how did my child get it?

Cancer is a disease in which the body’s cells grow abnormally (mutate). Normally, healthy cells grow at a steady rate. But with cancer, the cells grow out of control. With some cancers, the cells group together and form a lump of tissue called a tumor.

  • Malignant tumors: These tumors often grow fast and destroy healthy tissue. Malignant tumors are metastatic. This means they can spread to other areas of the body.
  • Benign tumors: In some cases, a tumor forms that is not cancer. This is a benign tumor. Benign tumors are locally invasive. This means they don’t spread and affect only one area of the body. But they may still need treatment.

What causes cancer?

Unlike cancer in adults, the cause of cancer in children is often unknown. Parents of children with cancer often blame themselves, but cancer in children is no one’s fault. Mutations in certain genes may affect the way your child’s cells grow. This gene mutation is random and couldn’t have been prevented. In rare cases, other factors, such as exposure to certain viruses, chemicals, high birth weight, or radiation play a role.

What are the symptoms of cancer?

There is no single set of symptoms for cancer. Instead, your child’s symptoms depend on the type of cancer and where the cancer is found. Some symptoms can mimic common illnesses such as the flu, a cold or a migraine headache.

How is cancer diagnosed?

Your child may have had a number of tests to diagnose cancer, and still more may be needed. Your healthcare team can tell you more about any tests your child might need.

Staging and grading of cancer

Staging is the process that determines the size of the cancer and how much it has spread. Most cancers have their own staging system. Grading is used to describe how abnormal the cancer cells look when seen through a microscope. The more abnormal the cells are, the faster they grow. Staging and grading help the healthcare team plan treatment for your child. They also help determine the likelihood of cure (prognosis). Staging and grading systems may take into consideration the following:

  • Location of the primary tumor
  • Tumor size and number of tumors
  • If the cancer has spread to other areas of the body (metastasis)
  • How abnormal the cancer cells look under a microscope

For many cancers, the stages are broken down into stages 1 through 4 (often written as I through IV). The stage numbers refer to the tumor’s size and how much it has spread. For instance, stage I is an early stage of cancer in which the cancer has not spread much. And stage IV is the most widespread. But many cancers are broken down into further classifications. Your healthcare provider can tell you more if needed and answer any questions you have about the stage of your child’s cancer.

How is cancer treated?

Childhood cancers are often more curable than cancer in adults. The goal of treatment is to attack abnormal cells, while hurting as few healthy cells as possible. To treat the cancer, your child may require more than one therapy. These may include the following:

  • Chemotherapy to kill cancer cells or shrink tumors using strong medicine. This treatment usually requires several sessions and has side effects. These can include tiredness, hair loss, nausea, and vomiting. But medications are available to help treat certain side effects.
  • Surgery to remove all or part of a tumor.
  • Radiation to kill cancer cells or shrink tumors using high-energy waves.

It’s important that you follow your child’s treatment schedule as directed. Be sure to keep all your child’s healthcare appointments.

What is the likely outcome for my child?

The likelihood of cure may depend on the following:

  • The presence of symptoms related to the type of cancer
  • Type and stage of the cancer
  • Size and location of the tumor (if a tumor is present)
  • If the cancer has spread
  • How the cancer cells look under a microscope
  • The child’s age and overall health
  • The cancer’s response to treatment
  • How well the child responds to medications, procedures, or therapies


You’re likely feeling many emotions right now. Remember that you are not alone. Your child’s healthcare team will work with you and your child throughout your child’s illness and care. You may also wish to seek information and support for yourself. Doing so can help you cope with the changes cancer brings. Learning about and talking with others who also have a child with cancer may help you and your family cope.

Learn more about how Children’s Cancer Research Fund can connect you to valuable resources and support networks.

This information is displayed with permission of our partner hospital, the University of Minnesota Children’s Hospital.