Pediatric Oncology: 5 Cancer Classifications
No parent wants to hear the dreaded news their child might have cancer. In such circumstances, it’s important to remember major advancements in diagnosis and treatment have significantly improved survival and cure rates. While the specifics vary by disease, the average is better than 80% overall and above 97% for many childhood cancers.
If you’ve been referred to a pediatric oncologist, it’s likely your pediatrician detected something that raises concerns. The specialist will conduct a variety of diagnostic procedures such as biopsies, blood panels, organ function tests, genetic studies, and imaging technologies such as bone scans, CT scans, MRIs, x-rays and ultrasounds.
The goal is to determine the nature of the threat, which will typically fall into one of several broad classifications:
- Leukemia. Cancerous disorders of the blood are broadly classified as leukemia, a condition that causes white blood cells to grow in an uncontrolled manner. The most common form of cancer in children, leukemia begins in the bone marrow where new blood cells are formed, spreads to the blood and circulates throughout the body. Over time, the number of defective blood cells begins to outnumber healthy ones, leading to severe illness.
- Lymphomas. This term describes cancerous growths that begin in the lymph nodes and bone marrow. This is the third most common form of pediatric cancer, following leukemia and brain tumors. Because the lymph system circulates lymph fluid, which contains infection-fighting white blood cells and lymphocytes, lymphomas can potentially spread to any part of the body.
- Skin cancers. While children are prone to certain types of skin tumors, most are benign, respond to treatment or removal, or disappear on their own. Skin cancers are actually rather rare in children, so less than 2% of skin tumors turn out to be malignant. Children with fair skin, light or red hair, and light-colored eyes are more susceptible in general to most forms of skin cancers.
- Tumors. Tumors can occur anywhere in or on the body, including the skin, muscles, organs, bones, joints and blood vessels. Many childhood tumors are benign (noncancerous) but because the treatment strategies are quite similar, families are typically referred to a pediatric oncologist once a tumor is detected. Brain tumors are the second most common form of cancer in children.
- Germ cell tumors. This rare type of tumor is often distinguished from other tumors because it occurs during the baby’s early development. Comprised primarily of germ cells designed to evolve into the baby’s reproductive system (ovaries or testes), the cells can for reasons that aren’t fully understood settle in the wrong location. These germ cells may then create a benign or malignant tumor located in the head, chest, abdomen, pelvis or lower back.
This article is not intended as medical advice. See your pediatrician for specific advice on your child’s health.