Can Babies Be Born with Cancer?

Medically reviewed by Lisa R. Diller, MD

Can babies be born with cancer?
Carrick and his dad, Patrick.

For any parent, having a child with cancer is devastating. This was the case for the parents of Carrick Stafford Wood, who was born with cancer — specifically, acute myeloid leukemia (or AML). He spent the first six months of his life in the hospital before finally going home on Christmas Day.

We spoke to Lisa Diller, MD, clinical director of Pediatric Oncology at Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center, about the rare scenario in which a baby is born with cancer.

Is it unusual for babies to be born with cancer?

It’s unusual, but it can happen. The most common cancer in newborns is neuroblastoma – a rare cancer of the developing nervous system. It can present with a tumor near or around the spine as well as in the abdomen or the adrenal gland. Sometimes we can tell because the baby’s liver is enlarged. Other times, we can tell because the cancer sometimes spreads to skin within the newborn period. Other tumors we see more rarely in children are leukemia (a blood cancer) and a tumor called teratoma that often appears as a mass near the coccyx bone.

Can cancer be detected before birth, and if so can you treat it then?

Cancers can sometimes be seen before birth by ultrasounds that are done to check a baby’s health. The Advanced Fetal Care Center at Boston Children’s Hospital can do more diagnostic studies in utero when necessary, including MRIs and even biopsies. It’s very important to have obstetricians, surgeons, and neonatologists as part of the team that cares for newborns with cancer.

We sometimes suggest that the obstetrician deliver a baby early if we think symptoms might progress and harm the baby. For example, there was a young boy who was in utero, and his mother noticed a couple weeks before his due date that he wasn’t kicking as much. She went to the obstetrician, they did an ultrasound, and they saw a tumor by the spine that was affecting the baby’s ability to move his legs. Within 24 hours he was delivered and immediately sent to Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s to start chemotherapy. He’s doing great now.

How successful is cancer treatment overall for newborns?

Neuroblastomas and teratomas in newborns are usually very treatable, and most children are cured. Infantile leukemia is hard to treat, but again, with aggressive therapy, we are able to cure many of them. We have an infant leukemia expert here in Lewis Silverman, MD, and we’re always doing new studies to see if we can improve our outcomes.

What about secondary cancers?

As many people know, radiation can cause cancer, but it is also an important treatment choice for cancer patients. In a newborn, we almost never use radiation, because exposing a newborn to radiation could not only result in second cancers later in life, but also the area of the body that you radiate will often not grow appropriately.

When we feel we absolutely have to use radiation to save a child’s life, we’ve learned how to give the absolute minimum amount of radiation in order to cure them while minimizing long-term harm. We’ve learned from survivors how to improve our therapies.

7 thoughts on “Can Babies Be Born with Cancer?”

  1. My 2 1/2 week old grandson has been conclusively diagnosed with medulloblastoma which formed during gestation and went undetected. His pediatrician disregarded the abnormalswelling head measurement and said the incessant screaming was caused by colic and/or acid reflex. Baby’s condition worsened. The ER at Wolfsons Childrens Hospital picked up on the abnormality a day or so later. He has already undergone 14 hours of surgery and round the clock care at Wolfsons Children Hospital in Jacksonville. The growth removed was the size of a large plum. Excellent surgeon and staff. Prognosis not promising. Care continues to be a combination of curative and palliative.

  2. My daughter was born with a medulloblastoma in 1984. She had a shunt put in at 3 weeks old. At 4 weeks old 98% of the tumor was removed and 18 months of chemotherapy. We have had a long road with many shunt revisions, she is an amazing 30 years old. We had an amazing surgeon and lots of prayers. Hang in there. I will be praying for you and your family. If you have and questions please feel free to contact me.

  3. I rushed my son to the ER at 6 weeks old for what I thought was a stomach virus even though we hadn’t been anywhere outside the home and no one in my house was sick. He woke up vomiting excessively. We spent hours in the ER. Doctors did a CT on his stomach area as well as an ultrasound. Because he was lethargic and not eating we were transported to a children hospital. Doctors there felt his soft spot and it was determined to be ” mushy. An ultrasound was done on his head and a large mass was spotted but it still wasn’t yet determined what the mass was until he went down for an MRI. My son had a fairly large tumor on the back left side of his brain. It was resected two days later, tumor tissue was sent to John Hopkins and determined as a Grade 4 Glioblastoma Multiforme. Because of the size of the tumor doctors determined he was born with it.

  4. My kid just 4 month
    Liver enlarge
    Testing are going on
    Doctor say it can be cancer
    Pray for my kid

    0097 152 6997925

  5. Doctors found a mass on my baby at 20 weeks in utero. She was delivered at 34 weeks, but the mass which was originally only on her back had already spread throughout her body. After birth they did a biopsy and she was diagnosed with infantile spindle cell rhabdomyosarcoma. They tried one round of chemo but said that the cancer was too advanced and there was nothing left for them to do. She’s one month old now, and she is hanging on. I’m praying for a miracle.

  6. at 18 days of life, my baby was diagnosed of an Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. The neonatologist found out that her liver and spleen was both swollen. The prognosis was bad. But we keep on praying for miracle to happen coz it is our first baby. But after the last chemo drug administer to her, instead of lowering her white blood cell, it makes it higher. At exactly 4th month of her life, My baby did not make it. Please pray for my little angel. ????????* from a heartbroken couple of Philippines*

  7. Dear Rain,

    Thank you for you note. We are so sorry to hear about your daughter.

    We wish you and your family the best.

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