Recognizing the signs of childhood cancer

Recognizing the signs of childhood cancer

Hearing the words “your child has cancer” is a parent’s worst nightmare. According to the American Childhood Cancer Organization, each year an estimated 15,780 children are diagnosed with cancer in the U.S. While childhood cancer is not preventable, early detection and diagnosis are key.

Dr. Ricarchito Manera, a pediatric oncologist at Advocate Children’s Hospital, says the signs and symptoms of cancer that develop in children can sometimes fly under the radar, especially early on.

Some children may initially experience symptoms that also appear with some seasonal illnesses such as the flu or from being exposed to germs. If a child develops flu-like symptoms but appears otherwise healthy, it may warrant a visit to the doctor. These include prolonged fever, enlarged lymph node(s) in the neck that doesn’t go away, and wheezing or a cough that doesn’t improve — even with treatment. If the child is also experiencing night sweats and weight loss, Dr. Manera recommends bringing them to the emergency room.

However, not all cancers present the same way, and some signs can be missed altogether.

“Certain cancers first present in kids with a pain that’s attributed to growing pains or sore muscles from being active, especially pain in the bone and legs,” says Dr. Manera.

Dr. Manera says to take note of any new pains your child develops, especially if the cause is unknown and if the pain becomes relentless, occurs through the night, and disturbs sleep. Their pediatrician can help determine if they’re truly growing pains or if something else could be the cause.

According to Dr. Manera, other symptoms that should also be evaluated by a doctor include: A painless lump or bump, changes in behavior, decreased energy, stunted growth, increased urination and thirst, changes in the eyes, unusual bleeding, abdominal mass or swelling, and a headache that occurs in the morning and is accompanied by vomiting or that occurs at night and awakens the child when asleep.

“The challenge with pediatrics is that most of the time a child can’t express what they’re feeling, which is why paying attention to any changes that develop is important. Additionally, sometimes parents observe things at home that the child may not manifest in front of their doctor or tries to hide, such as complaints of pain, so be sure to bring those up to their pediatrician,” says Dr. Manera.

In some cases, a child might develop a symptom their parents aren’t aware of and may not think it’s worth mentioning or are embarrassed to bring it up. Dr. Manera recommends talking to your child about the importance of sharing with you any changes they may be experiencing.

“No symptom is too minor. I always tell parents they know their kids best, so trust your gut. While certainly not all of these signs mean a child has cancer, it’s always better to be on the safe side,” says Dr. Manera.

Learn more about pediatric cancer care in Illinois or Wisconsin

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About the Author

Lee Batsakis
Lee Batsakis

Lee Batsakis, health enews contributor, is a public affairs coordinator with Advocate Children’s Hospital. She graduated from Western Michigan University with a degree in public relations and has worked in health care since 2013. Outside of work, she enjoys reading, exercising, and spending time with her fiancé and two dogs.