A Closer Look at Childhood Cancer

September is National Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. Beginning next Wednesday, and over the next four weeks, we’ll introduce four children – Caitlynne, Fernando, Sarah and Steven – who while still young, have already overcome one of the biggest challenges of their lives.

These four represent just a few of the many faces of childhood cancer across the United States and the world. We hope you’ll join us in September in honoring all of the children who come to Dana-Farber/Children’s Hospital Cancer Center, as well as their caregivers—doctors, nurses, psychologists, social workers, researchers, administrators and more—who work tirelessly until every child is well.

We begin with a conversation with Lisa Diller, MD, chief medical officer and clinical director of Pediatric Oncology at Dana-Farber/Children’s Hospital Cancer Center.

Should I worry that my child will get cancer?

In short, no. While it’s normal for parents to worry about their child’s health, cancer in children is, thankfully, very rare. In fact, according to the American Cancer Society, an estimated 12,060 new cases are expected to occur this year among children age 14 or younger. That’s fewer than 2 out of every 10,000 children, on average.

But cancer diagnoses do happen, and parents may still have concerns about the disease. Your best course of action is to make sure your child gets regular medical checkups. If you have concerns about specific signs or symptoms that persist, talk with your child’s doctor.

What symptoms might cause a child’s doctor to suspect cancer?

Photo of Dr. Lisa Diller
Dr. Lisa Diller

It’s difficult to list cancer symptoms, because cancer is so diverse. Diagnosis is further complicated by the fact that many signs and symptoms, such as fever, bruising, and headaches, are normal in healthy children.

Pediatricians are extremely skilled at distinguishing the usual bumps and pains from the concerning ones. They sense which symptoms need evaluation and astutely order tests, using the character, duration, and severity of symptoms — and often their experience — to guide their decisions.

How can I help a friend who has a child diagnosed with cancer?

Many parents comment on how helpful neighbors and friends have been during their child’s cancer treatments, volunteering to care for other children at home, making meals, and even driving visitors to see the patient. But one of the most important things you can do is to ask your friend what the family needs, and be respectful of their privacy. Even well-meaning relatives and friends can overwhelm parents of a child with cancer.

I tell families to be direct about what they need – and what they don’t need. When friends offer to help, suggest specific tasks. One idea that we often recommend is suggesting that friends donate blood, because cancer patients of all ages often need transfusions of blood or blood products, such as platelets. Even if the donations don’t directly benefit the child they know, more blood will be available for other sick children.

What advice do you give parents whose child has been diagnosed with cancer?

I tell parents to stay positive. Cure rates have been steadily improving for decades now, and that’s not by accident. We’ve made significant advances in treatment, resulting in great outcomes for the majority of childhood cancer patients. For example, the survival rate for the most common pediatric cancer diagnosis, acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), is now at more than 90 percent.

I also remind parents that our intent with ALL and most other pediatric cancers is to cure the disease, not to buy time. Many families base their experience with cancer on what they’ve seen in older relatives, but it’s important to remember that the prognosis in children is usually good.

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On Wednesday, September 5, hear from Caitlynne, who opted for an innovative treatment that turned her ankle into a replacement knee after a rare leg cancer took part of her leg.


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