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Do you know the signs of cancer in children?

Posted by Dr. Claire McCarthy  February 3, 2014 09:23 AM

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WCD_Logo_RGB_2012.pngThe American Cancer Society released a report on childhood cancer at the end of January. It has both bad news and good news--and, I think, a message for parents. 

Here's the bad news: cancer rates in children are rising. The rise is slight: 0.6% a year since 1975. Some of the rise is from the fact that we are getting better at diagnosing cancer; years ago children died of complications of cancer before we ever knew they had it. But some of the increase is real. We don't know why; it's likely that toxins and other environmental factors are part of the reason, but there are probably lots of reasons.

The report says that in 2014, an estimated 15,780 children in the US will be diagnosed with cancer--and 1,960 will die of it.

Okay, now the good news: more children are surviving cancer. Death rates have fallen steadily, at 2.1 percent each year, since 1975--with an overall decline of more than 50 percent. Even more: children who survive 5 years after their treatment have a remarkably good chance of continuing to survive--and beating cancer. 

We have come incredibly far when it comes to treating cancer. We have remarkable new treatments--and we have gotten very good at supporting children through the complications of cancer, including the side effects of treatment. 

One thing that makes an absolute difference is catching it early--and that is the message to parents. It's important to know the signs--and get help early.

Many of the early signs of cancer can seem minor--and can be confused with minor things, like the stomach flu or an ordinary bruise or a child trying to get out of going to school. And, in fact, most of the time when a child vomits or has a bruise or says her head hurts it isn't cancer. The challenge is knowing when to worry--and call your doctor. 

Here are some signs that should worry you--and make you call your doctor:
  • Fatigue. It's normal for kids to be tired sometimes--we all have tired days. But if your child always seems to be tired, despite getting enough sleep, and especially if they look pale, that's not normal.
  • Weight loss. Kids should steadily gain weight as they grow. It's normal to lose some weight during an illness, and children who become much more active may lose some temporarily also, but any persistent weight loss in a child isn't okay. There are lots of other conditions besides cancer that can cause it, but it definitely warrants a call to the doctor.
  • Lots of new bruises. It's especially concerning if you can't explain them. We also get worried about tiny bruises, little dot-sized red spots we call petechiae. There are non-cancer reasons for bruises and petechiae, but it's a good idea to get your child checked out.
  • Lumps and bumps and swellings that don't go away. It's very common for kids to have swollen lymph nodes in the neck, especially during cold and flu season. And sometimes a knee can be swollen after a bump. But any big lumps or bumps or swellings that are big or don't go away should get reported to the doctor.
  • Pain that is severe or doesn't go away. Aches and pains are part of life--and childhood, too. But if pain is severe, or doesn't go away (even if it's not severe), it could be a sign of a problem, including cancer. You should especially be concerned about pain that wakes a child from sleep or makes them stop doing things they normally enjoy doing.
  • Neurologic symptoms. These include dizziness, weakness, vision problems, trouble with balance or coordination, memory problems or speech problems. Basically, if your child starts doing something unusual, or has trouble doing something they've always done with ease, that's not normal. Again, it may not be cancer--but it should never be ignored.
  • Frequent vomiting. There are lots of things that can cause this, but always let your doctor know if it's happening, especially if your child has headaches, too--and make sure that you figure it out.
  • Frequent fevers and/or infections. It's totally normal for kids to have several illnesses with fever every year, especially during cold and flu season. But if your child is getting sick all the time, or having unexplained fevers, talk to your doctor about whether doing some more tests would be a good idea.
These are just a few possible signs of cancer, not all of them. And for each of them, there are plenty of other explanations besides cancer. The bottom line: if something doesn't seem right about your child, let your doctor know. It may be trite, but it's true: better safe than sorry.

To learn more about childhood cancer, visit the American Cancer Society's website.

Is there something you'd like me to write about? Leave me a message on my Facebook page--and "like" the page for links to all my MD Mama blogs as well as my blogs on Thriving and Huffington Post. 

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About MD Mama

Claire McCarthy, M.D., is a pediatrician and Medical Communications Editor at Boston Children's Hospital . An assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and a senior editor for Harvard More »

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