What Are the Signs of Cancer in Kids?   

What Are the Signs of Cancer in Kids?

Hands holding children soft toy brown bear with yellow gold ribbon, Childhood cancer awareness
Clinical Contributors to this story:
Jessica A. Scerbo, M.D.

As a parent, having a sick child is never easy. From the daily life disruptions of taking your child to the doctor or urgent care center to the emotional toll of seeing your child in pain, having a sick child can be a frustrating and scary time. While most of the time your child will get better with medicine and rest, it’s important to be aware of the symptoms of more serious sicknesses.

Cancer in children is very rare, making up only about 1 percent of all cancers diagnosed in a given year, according to the American Cancer Society. Still, it helps to know the early warning signs, as the earlier a child receives treatment for cancer, the more likely it is to be curable. Cancers caught at early stages generally have better outcomes than late-stage cancers.

“There are a number of symptoms that could indicate cancer in children,” says Jessica Scerbo M.D., section chief of pediatric hematology/oncology at K. Hovnanian Children’s Hospital. “Many of them are also indicative of other health problems, so being aware of them is good for your child’s well-being in general.”

Common Symptoms of Pediatric Cancer

Paleness or easy bruising. A change in skin tone, particularly to a paler shade, can be a sign of cancer. Other unexplained markings on the skin, such as bruises or even marks that look like moles, can also be indicative of cancer.

Unexplained persistent fever. A prolonged fever could indicate cancer. Leukemia, which affects blood and bone marrow, is one type of cancer that may cause a persistent fever.

Loss of energy or fatigue. Cancers including lymphoma and Ewing sarcoma can cause fatigue in children. “Lacking the energy to make it through a day is a symptom of cancer, but it can also be a symptom of many other health problems,” says Dr. Scerbo. “If your child is fatigued, talk to your doctor right away.”

Unusual swelling or lumps. This is one of the symptoms most commonly associated with cancer. Most lumps are benign, but it is important to get them checked. Cancer-causing tumors can appear almost anywhere in the body.

Persistent headaches, with or without vomiting. Frequent headaches, often occurring in the morning, could be a sign of a cancerous tumor. Nausea and vomiting can be another sign, and sometimes go hand-in-hand with headaches.

What to Do

Remember that all of these symptoms can also be indicators of other issues that aren’t cancer. In fact, it’s more likely that these issues are caused by a health problem that isn’t cancer. However, regardless of the cause, it’s important to take your child to the doctor if they are experiencing any of these symptoms.

“We’re equipped to diagnose your child whether that’s through an examination, imaging tests, or even biopsy if it gets to that point,” says Dr. Scerbo. “The most important thing for parents to do is take action as soon as they recognize a problem. If a child does have cancer, catching it early makes treating it successfully more likely.”

If you’re concerned your child has a health issue, make an appointment with a pediatrician. Learn more about pediatric cancer services at Hackensack Meridian Health.

Next Steps & Resources

The material provided through HealthU is intended to be used as general information only and should not replace the advice of your physician. Always consult your physician for individual care.


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