Symptoms of childhood cancer: detection is life

Every February 15 marks the International Day of Childhood Cancer, a solemn campaign that seeks to raise awareness in child caregivers so that they are attentive to the symptoms. Another goal is to recognize and express support for survivors of this disease and their families.

What is childhood cancer?

Childhood cancer encompasses numerous diseases characterized by the abnormal development of cells that grow, divide, and multiply without control.

“Cancer is the uncontrolled and anarchic growth of a cell lineage. This can be in blood cells or a solid organ such as the kidney, liver, or bone”, says Dr. José Manuel Ruano, an oncologist specializing in pediatric surgery.

According to the specialist, the main difference between cancer in adults and children is that the former is from the superficial part of the tissues and is called carcinoma, “That’s why you hear about breast carcinoma, stomach carcinoma. In children, they are more embryonic-type tumors coded practically since the egg and sperm join and may be due to a genetic fault”.

Although physical, chemical, and biological factors influence cancer, both in adults and children, it is much more inclined towards the genetic part, “There are hereditary tumors and can be seen in the chromosomes. A small part is missing in the chromosome, which causes the protective genes against cancer to be lost”.

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What type of cancer is the most common in children?

Dr. Ruano explains that the most common cause of childhood cancer, with just over 50%, is leukemia or blood cancer. “It is usually in white blood cells, which grow disorderly and do not allow other cell lines such as red blood cells and platelets to develop, and only white cells grow”.

There are other common types of cancer in children, such as lymphomas and tumors of the Central Nervous System (CNS). “In school children, CNS tumors or brain tumors are prevalent. Then you can mention bone tumors or kidney cancer in children, which is called Wilms tumor. There are many types of cancer and sarcomas, but basically, the first three causes are leukemia, tumors of the Central Nervous System, and lymphomas”.

Symptoms of childhood cancer

Depending on the type of cancer, the symptoms are different. “If we talk about cancer in general, almost all of them are accompanied by weight loss and lack of appetite. It is very common in children. This does not mean that it is always cancer, but when a child who does not want to eat presents weight loss, you see haggard eyes, has an unexplained fever, has already been given antibiotics, and does not recover… That child must have a biometry done and study his blood to see if he doesn’t have some cancer”.

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Symptoms of leukemia in children

Many of the symptoms of childhood leukemia can also be due to other causes. However, if your child has any of them, a doctor must examine him.

  • Feeling tired
  • Weakness
  • Cold
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Difficulty for breathing
  • Paler skin
  • Feeling tired

“Leukemias are almost always accompanied by anemia, very low red blood cells. The kid may have unexplained bruises on his body (he didn’t hit himself), have a bloody nose, have bleeding from his digestive tract, maybe poo, and have bleeding there. When you put all these symptoms together, there could be a problem in the blood, and leukemia could be one of those problems”, says Dr. Ruano.

Symptoms of brain tumors

According to the Mayo Clinic, the signs and symptoms of a brain tumor in children vary widely and depend on the type, size, location, and rate of tumor growth. Some include:

  • Headaches, which may become more frequent and severe
  • Sensation of increased pressure in the head
  • Nausea or vomiting for no apparent reason
  • Sudden onset of vision problems, such as double vision
  • Seizures
  • Babbling
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Difficulty maintaining balance
  • Memory problems
  • Disorientation or irritability
  • Changes in personality or behavior
  • Hearing problems

“Children with brain tumors almost always have strabismus. A child who suddenly turns cross-eyed is very likely to have affected part in the back of his brain. A child suddenly has facial paralysis; one eye goes crooked, and he loses balance… You have to suspect that he may have a tumor”, adds the doctor.

Symptoms of lymphomas in children

Lymphoma is any cancer that begins in the lymphatic system, a network of organs (spleen, tonsils, thymus, lymph nodes in the neck, armpits, stomach, and groin) that carry a clear fluid, which is essential in the body’s immune system.

Not all children with lymphoma have symptoms. Those who do may have:

  • Lumps in the neck, armpits, stomach, testicles, or groin (sometimes called “swollen glands”)
  • Fever
  • Night sweats
  • Feeling tired
  • Weightloss
  • Skin itch
  • Feeling short of breath
  • Cough
  • Chest pain
  • Loss of appetite
  • Swollen abdomen

“Most children are hyperreactors, so when they have an infection in their throat, in the respiratory tract generally, their lymph nodes grow, but it is a small growth, they are mobile, you touch them, and they move easily. But when you have a tumor node, they are generally like rubber, with a hard, firm consistency; they do not move easily. A child who has lymph nodes and blames it for having had an infection, they gave him treatment, it is not removed, so he should be checked because it can be a tumor called Hodgkin or non-Hodgkin”.

On the other hand, the doctor calls on mothers to pay attention to the presence of lumps in the children’s body, “It is essential that the child goes to his check-up and that they touch his tummy and see that he does not have an organ that is grown to detect a tumor of the kidney, adrenal glands, or liver. These are tumors that do not give any symptoms until you go for a check-up or the mother is bathing him and notices a small ball in the tummy, so that is a fact that the child may have a tumor in the abdomen.

Other warning signs of childhood cancer

Dr. Ruano comments that a child who says that his bones hurt, especially when it is one, in particular, it could be the femur or the humerus, has already been treated, and the pain does not go away; he also has to be evaluated. “Do not be confused with growing pains. A child who repeatedly has pain in the same bone should have an X-ray taken because he may have a bone tumor”.

We also have to be very aware of the eyes of our children. “There are other types of tumors, for example, retinal tumors, specifically retinoblastoma, where the first sign you see is an abnormal reflection of the eye. Sometimes they see it when they take a photo or when the child turns at a certain angle, and the mother notices that a shine is reflected in the eye as if it had its own light. So that is something wrong with the child’s eye, and it could be a cataract or maybe cancer. He has to be checked by an ophthalmologist and a pediatrician. It looks like a cat’s eye, a white reflection. It can be in one eye or both”.

The probability of cure in children is high

The survival of a child diagnosed with cancer depends a lot on the stage of the disease. If it is detected in time, he will likely win the battle with the appropriate treatment.

“Fortunately, today, seven out of 10 children, 70% of children diagnosed with cancer, are cured. When detected early, the probability of cure is very high. Just as children’s tumors grow quickly, so is the treatment efficient. The most encouraging thing is that when he is cured, his chance of life is equal to that of the general population”.

Treatment for childhood cancer is based on surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy. “Some tumors need all three weapons that we have, some only two and others one, depending on the tumor and its stage. The more advanced cancer, the more exposure to chemotherapy or radiotherapy”, concludes the expert.

Translated by: Ligia M. Oliver Manrique de Lara

Spanish version: Here