Early Signs and Symptoms of Cancer in Children


Cancer in children is rare. In developed countries, between 105 and 150 cases per 1 million children are diagnosed every year. However, since it has a high mortality rate, it is the second-leading cause of childhood mortality after injuries.


For parents, the news that their child has cancer can be devastating, so it is important to highlight that a significant percentage of these young patients can be effectively treated and cured. Overall, more than 75% of pediatric cancer patients become long-term survivors.


Unfortunately, early diagnosis that can be related to a better outcome is often delayed because childhood cancer is rare and the presenting symptoms tend to be nonspecific and resemble those of benign conditions.


Studies have shown that the average delay in the diagnosis of leukemia is three weeks, of lymphoma eight weeks, of brain tumors 12 weeks, and for various other solid tumors between 2.5 and 12 weeks.


The parental delay in seeking care was shorter than the health care system delay in making the diagnosis, emphasizing that parents are usually the best observers of their children, and that physicians should listen to parents’ concerns.


This article addresses both frequent and rare presenting signs and symptoms of childhood cancer, with an emphasis on some “red flag” symptoms that should be brought to medical attention promptly.


The aim of this article is not to terrify parents and make them rush to the doctor every time their child experiences one of the following signs or symptoms. They should, however, be aware of them and consult their child’s health care provider if these symptoms persist or present repeatedly.


Cancer in children is different from adults, therefore symptoms that are suggestive of specific malignancies in adults are very rare in children. For example, symptoms like rectal bleeding and breast lumps-that in adults could indicate colon or breast cancer respectively-are rare in children.


The most common types of cancer in children (approximately 70%) are acute leukemia (lymphoblastic and myeloid), brain tumors, lymphoma (cancer or the lymph nodes) and neuroblastoma, whereas more rare forms of cancer include bone and soft tissue tumors, as well as tumors of the kidneys, the liver and the eyes.


Childhood cancer can present with a wide variety of symptoms, the following are symptoms which should be evaluated by a doctor.