Types of Childhood Cancer

There are many types of childhood cancer with different symptoms and treatments. Childhood cancer survival rates in the United States have increased from less than 20 percent in the 1960s to almost 80 percent today. Parents are the best advocates for their children so being informed will help guide a family to make the best decisions for the child battling cancer.


Leukemias are the most common childhood cancers. They account for about 33% of all childhood cancers. Leukemia affects two types of white blood cells which are responsible for protecting the body from disease: lymphocytes and granulocytes. Leukemias that affect lymphocytes are known as “lymphocytic” or “lymphoblastic,” and those that affect granulocytes are called “myeloid” or “myelogenous” leukemias.
Leukemia is also classified as either acute or chronic. In acute leukemia, white blood cells are released from the bone marrow into the bloodstream before they mature, where they reproduce rapidly. In chronic leukemias, the blood cells are a bit more mature and multiply at a much slower rate.
Some childhood cancers, such as neuroblastoma or Wilms tumor, start in other organs and can spread to bone marrow, but these cancers are not leukemia.


Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL) is the most common leukemia seen in children, accounting for 75% of all pediatric cases. ALL occurs in two distinct age groups: infants under three years of age, and young teenagers.

Acute Myelogenous Leukemia (AML) strikes both children and adults. About 20% of childhood leukemia cases are AML.
Juvenile Myelomonocytic Leukemia (JMML) is a rare disease that mostly strikes children under four years of age. About 15% of JMML cases occur in children with neurofibromatosis type 1, a genetic disorder that is also treated at the Children’s Cancer Hospital.


  • Fatigue or weakness
  • Flu-like symptoms
  • Lost appetite; unexplained weight loss
  • Night sweats
  • Frequent infections
  • Easy bruising or bleeding
  • Swollen or tender lymph nodes
  • Anemia
  • Tiny red spots under the skin (petechiae)
  • Bone or joint pain

Typical Treatments

  • Chemotherapy
  • Chemotherapy with stem cell transplant
  • Radiation therapy
  • Targeted therapy with a tyrosine kinase inhibitor: a treatment that uses drugs or other substances to identify and attack specific cancer cells without harming normal cells. Tyrosine kinase inhibitor (TKI) therapy is a type of targeted therapy that blocks signals needed for tumors to grow. TKIs blocks the enzyme, tyrosine kinase, that causes stem cells to develop into more white blood cells (granulocytes or blasts) than the body needs. Imatinib (Gleevec) is one of the TKIs used to treat childhood CML. TKIs may be used in combination with other anticancer drugs as adjuvant therapy (treatment given after the initial treatment, to lower the risk that the cancer will come back).
  • Other Drug Therapy
  • Watchful waiting
  • Transfusion therapy: A way of giving red blood cells, white blood cells, or platelets to replace blood cells destroyed by disease or cancer treatment. The blood may be donated from another person or it may have been taken from the person earlier and stored until needed.
  • Drug therapy, such as antibiotics.
  • Leukapheresis: A procedure in which a special machine is used to remove white blood cells from the blood. Blood is taken from the patient and put through a blood cell separator where the white blood cells are removed. The rest of the blood is then returned to the patient’s bloodstream.

In addition, new types of treatments are often being tested in clinical trials and can be found on the National Cancer Institute Website.

Remember, you’re not alone.
Use our Forums to ask other parents what they’ve experienced.


In childhood ALL, risk groups are used instead of stages.

Because ALL is a disease of the blood cells, it has already spread throughout the body at diagnosis. There is no staging system for ALL. Risk groups are used to plan treatment.

Risk groups are described as:

  • Standard (low) risk: Includes children aged 1 to 9 years who have a white blood cell count of less than 50,000/µL at diagnosis.
  • High risk: Includes children younger than 1 year or older than 9 years and children who have a white blood cell count of 50,000/µL or more at diagnosis.

Other factors that affect the risk group include the following:

  • Whether the leukemia cells formed from B lymphocytes or T lymphocytes.
  • Whether there are certain changes in the chromosomes of the lymphocytes.
  • How quickly the leukemia responds to initial therapy.

It is important to know the risk group in order to plan treatment. Children with high risk ALL usually receive more aggressive treatment than children with standard risk ALL. There is no standard staging system for childhood AML, childhood chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML), juvenile myelomonocytic leukemia (JMML), transient myeloproliferative disorder (TMD), or myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS).

Childhood AML is described as newly diagnosed, in remission, or recurrent.


MD Anderson Childhood Cancer Types. Houston, TX: MD Anderson. Retrieved August 15, 2011 from http://www.mdanderson.org/patient-and-cancer-information/

National Institute of Health. Types of Cancers 2011. Retrieved September 13, 2011 from http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/treatment

American Cancer Society. Cancer Facts and Figures 2009. Atlanta, GA: American Cancer Society. Retrieved September 1, 2011, from http://www.cancer.org/downloads/STT/CAFF2009PWSecured.pdf.

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