Sep 18, 2017, 2:47:55 PM CDT Jul 30, 2018, 10:17:16 AM CDT

A medical mystery: How children get cancer

Uncovering the risk factors and causes of childhood cancer

little girl, cancer patient little girl, cancer patient

A cancer diagnosis in a child is frightening. Parents may have dozens of questions about their child’s health, treatment, and future, including – how did my child get cancer?

To understand childhood cancer, it’s important to understand how cancer works. All cancers, including those in adults, occur when the DNA in a cell mutates or changes. The body typically kills this new cell before it can cause any damage.

However, in the case of cancer, the mutated cell keeps growing and splitting into more cells. Cancer cells grow and divide much faster than healthy cells. They can spread throughout the body, sometimes causing tumors.

What causes this mutated cell? In children, it’s unclear.

Risk factors for childhood cancer

Adults may have behaviors that put them at a higher risk for cancer, such as smoking or eating an unhealthy diet.

But, children are too young for any unhealthy habits to increase their risk of cancer.

“We try to emphasize to parents that they did nothing to cause their child’s cancer, and their child did nothing to cause the cancer,” says Tanya Watt, M.D., pediatric oncologist at Children’s Health℠. “Researchers have looked at every possible cause – from what mom ate during pregnancy to the parents’ jobs, to where they live. We can’t come up with a reason why some children get cancer, and others do not. We hope parents understand this isn’t their fault or anybody’s fault.”

A strong family history of cancer may increase a child’s risk of cancer, but these genes are extremely rare. Childhood cancers are almost always caused by a DNA mutation that is not inherited, but happens randomly (acquired). Children with acquired DNA mutations can’t pass them on to their children in the future.

Common types of childhood cancer

While it’s unclear why children get cancer, Dr. Watt says certain types of cancer are more common among children, including:

  • Leukemia (blood cancer), that affects about 30 percent of children with cancer
  • Brain and nervous system cancers
  • Lymphoma (lymph system cancers)
  • Other types of tumors, such as Wilms’ tumors (kidney cancer), neuroblastoma, or osteosarcoma (bone cancer)

Most childhood cancers are very treatable. Dr. Watt says children are more likely to respond well to chemotherapy and radiation therapy, leading to higher childhood cancer survival rates than adult survival rates.

To better understand your child’s cancer, speak to your child’s doctors openly and ask questions. It can be helpful to bring a notebook to your appointments. Write down your questions and the specific answers and directions from the team. This can help you keep track of the action plan—bringing peace of mind. Remember, in stressful situations, it can be easy to forget what you’ve heard.

Learn more

Learn more about the Pauline Allen Gill Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders at Children’s Health and how our highly trained experts help children fight cancer.

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