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How Childhood Cancers Differ from Adult Cancers

Even though your child may be the spitting image of you or share your unique personality, they aren’t just small adults. Children require special care that can vary greatly from their adult counterparts. This is evident in the way doctors treat pediatric cancer.

Although cancer affects everyone—from the very young to the very old—there are some unique differences in the types of cancer that children tend to get and how doctors treat them.

Here’s a breakdown of how childhood cancer is different than adult cancer.

Cancer is far more common in adults

Perhaps the biggest difference is that cancer is far more common in adults than it is in children. Although pediatric cancer is still the leading cause of death from disease among children from birth to age 14, it is very rare.

“Pediatric cancers make up about 1% of all cancer diagnoses in the U.S.,” said Joseph Torkildson, MD, a pediatric hematologist and oncologist at Banner Health in Arizona. “About 1.6 million cases of adult cancer are diagnosed annually, while about 16,000 cases of pediatric cancer are diagnosed.

The causes for childhood cancer are most likely genetic

Unlike adult cancers, the development of cancer in children isn’t likely to be affected by environmental factors and occupational and lifestyle choices such as smoking or diet. Most childhood cancers are the result of errors in utero (in the womb), during the development of cells that create the body from a single egg or sperm.

“Traditionally, it was thought pediatric cancer was largely by chance, but more recent research suggests there are many cases where pre-existing genetic conditions make these events occur more commonly,” Dr. Torkildson said.

Because of these random changes in a child’s DNA, there’s no way to predict whether your child will get cancer and there’s no way of stopping it from happening—although it’s possible researchers could find a way in the future.

Children get different cancers than adults do

Pediatric cancers tend to occur in different locations in the body from those common in adult cancers. The most common cancers in adults are more likely to affect the breast, lung, colon, prostate and pancreas.

The most common cancers in children are leukemia (acute lymphocytic leukemia), brain and spinal tumors, lymphomas and sarcomas, and some, like retinoblastoma and neuroblastoma, are almost always diagnosed in young children.

Children with cancer are treated at pediatric cancer centers

Most adults who are diagnosed with cancer are treated by a local team of cancer specialists. Children’s cancers are must rarer, which is why they are typically treated by a team of pediatric specialists who understand the unique needs of children and young adults with cancer. These teams are typically found in children’s hospitals, university medical centers and cancer centers.

Childhood cancers are treated more aggressively

Children face unique issues during their treatment of cancer, after it’s completed and as survivors.

When it comes to the treatment of cancer, there are three main components: surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy. “In the last decade, chemotherapy has expanded to include treatments that specifically target the tumor being treated, often referred to as precision medicine,” Dr. Torkildson said.

The role of surgery and chemotherapy are similar for both adults and children, although the drugs used for chemotherapy are typically different. As well, some types of childhood cancers may be treated with high-dose chemotherapy. However, radiation therapy is used less commonly in the treatment of pediatric cancers as it can often cause more serious side effects in children than in adults.

“Radiation therapy is used less commonly in pediatrics due to the potential long-term side effects of radiation,” Dr. Torkildson said. “Efforts have been ongoing for many years to find alternatives to radiation for a variety of pediatric tumors, including leukemia, Hodgkin lymphoma and brain tumors.”

Outlook is good but long-term side effects are more of a concern

Recovery rates for pediatric cancer is higher than adult cancers. Many children respond well to treatment and go on to lead healthy, happy lives. However, because children tend to receive more aggressive treatment, they may be more susceptible to side effects that can surface months or years later after treatment ends. This is why most childhood cancer survivors need to be monitored for side effects for the rest of their lives.

Takeaway

Children aren’t just small adults. As such, there shouldn’t be a one-size-fits-most approach to their cancer care. Cancers that affect children are unique and so should the treatment of them.

If your child was recently diagnosed with cancer, learn more about the Banner Children’s team and what treatment options are available.

For additional resources, read:

Cancer Children's Health Parenting

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