What is Childhood Cancer?

Cancer is a disease of the cells. Cells divide and form new cells constantly throughout the body to replace old, or dead cells. Usually, cells divide and grow normally and will stop growing when they need to. Cancer starts when a cell becomes abnormal and grows and multiplies in an uncontrolled way.

The types of cancers that occur in children can be different from those that occur in adults. Childhood cancers:

  • can look different under the microscope
  • start in different parts of the body 
  • are treated differently
  • respond differently to treatment. 

Children often respond better to treatment than adults. This could be because:

  • the cancer itself is different
  • children may get more intense treatments
  • children don’t have any other health problems, or comorbidities (other health conditions), like many adults do

How many childhood cancers are there?

The types of cancers that affect children are usually different to the cancers that affect adults.

There are many forms of childhood cancers which tend to affect fast-growing tissues such as blood, lymph, bone marrow, nervous tissues, muscles, kidney, liver, and bone.

The most common childhood cancer types are; bone tumours, brain and other central nervous system tumours, germ cell tumours, Hodgkin lymphoma (Hodgkin disease), kidney (renal) tumours, leukaemia, liver tumours, melanoma, neuroblastoma, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, retinoblastoma and, soft tissue sarcoma. Read more about childhood cancer types here.

Are there specific symptoms to help you identify childhood cancer? 

Childhood cancer can often take longer to diagnose due to the symptoms being very similar to other medical conditions, including common infections. Because of this, children may need to undergo a variety of common tests to diagnose the cancer.

Specific symptoms to help identify childhood cancer include:

  • easy bruising, or bruising that doesn’t go away
  • an unusual lump, bump or swelling
  • unexplained paleness, tiredness, loss of energy and loss of interest
  • pain in one area of the body that doesn’t go away
  • limping or difficulties moving around
  • unexplained fever or illness that doesn’t go away
  • frequent headaches, often with nausea or vomiting
  • visual changes, such as blurred vision
  • lack of balance or direction when walking, that doesn’t go away
  • unexplained weight loss

If a child presents these symptoms, it does not mean they have cancer although if these symptoms don’t go away quickly, it is important to have a check-up with a doctor. 

What are the treatments for childhood cancer?

Treatment for childhood cancer depends on what type of cancer a child has been diagnosed with. When deciding treatment options, the side effects and potential risks, as well as the length of treatment, are also considered. A multidisciplinary team of health professionals are involved in planning and executing a child’s treatment.


Chemotherapy destroys or slows the growth of cancer cells through the use of specialised medicines. These medicines target fast-growing cells, which include cancer cells. There are many different types of chemotherapy medicines, however most children have combinations of different ones. This is to prevent the cancer cells becoming resistant to the medicines.

Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy, also known as radiotherapy, uses radiation to kill or damage cancer cells. Doctors who specialise in radiation therapy for children will give the treatment to your child. These doctors are called paediatric radiation oncologists and follow international practice.

Infants and young children can have radiation therapy although chemotherapy is preferred. Radiation therapy is mainly used for older children or as an option after chemotherapy, if the cancer returns.

Stem cell transplant

A stem cell transplant is also known as a bone marrow transplant. A child’s doctor may recommend this treatment if the child has a blood cancer such as leukaemia, lymphoma, or high-risk neuroblastoma. Stem cell transplants involve destroying all the blood-forming cells in the child’s bone marrow, including cancer cells. The blood-forming cells are then replaced with healthy stem cells. These stem cells develop into new bone marrow and produce healthy blood cells.


Surgery is one of the main treatments for childhood cancer. Doctors will usually only perform surgery for cancers that involve a lump or tumour. Surgery to remove a tumour involves making an incision in the skin. The doctor will remove as much of the tumour as possible. Minimally invasive surgery (also called keyhole surgery) can be used to help make a diagnosis and for treatment.

Can you prevent childhood cancer? 

It is not always clear why some children develop cancer, and others do not. In most cases, it is unknown as to why children get cancer and there is usually no form of prevention.

Sometimes tumours develop as a result of a genetic error which occurs while a child’s body is growing, and sometimes childhood cancers are genetic. Some children are born with genetic conditions that increase their chance of getting certain cancers, however this does not mean they will develop cancer. 

How can you help further research into childhood cancer? 

Making a donation is one of the best ways to help accelerate research and ultimately, transform the prevention, detection and treatment of childhood cancer.

Thanks to donations from our generous supporters, ACRF was able to award a $3.5 million grant to the Children’s Cancer Institute (CCI) in Sydney to establish the ACRF Child Cancer Liquid Biopsy Program. Currently, children with cancer must endure tumour biopsy – a painful and invasive procedure that provides limited information about the different types of cancer cells in the tumour at a point in time. This program will help develop a more sensitive and less invasive type of sampling, based on a child’s blood or lymph fluid – a game-changer for children diagnosed with cancer, and their families. Read more about the grant here.

Donate Today to help ACRF back brilliant cancer research

ACRF is committed to backing the brilliant ideas needed to find new ways to prevent, detect and treat all types of cancer, including childhood cancer, so that we can reach our vision of a world without this devastating disease.

By donating to ACRF, you are helping to provide scientists with the tools, technology and infrastructure they need to accelerate cancer research. Click here to see donation options or make a donation today.