The types of cancer that children experience are very different from those of adults. None of the most common adult cancers - prostate (in men), breast (in women), lung, or colon - are found in children.
Instead, leukemia is the most common cancer in all children, representing 31.5% of cases in children under 15. Next most common are central nervous system cancers including brain cancer (20.2%), lymphomas including Hodgkin’s disease and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (10.7%), neuroblastoma and other cancers of the nerves (7.8%), soft tissue sarcomas (7%), kidney cancers (6.3%), and cancer of the bones (4.5%) (1).
Click here to see Graph of types of childhood cancer
The patterns of cancer vary a lot at different ages. The cancers most common in very young children are different from those in children of pre-school age and different again from those most common in adolescents.
For infants, neuroblastoma is the most common form of cancer, accounting for 28% of cases. Leukemia (17%), central nervous system tumors (13%), retinoblastoma (12%) and Wilms tumor (9%) were the next most common (2). Male and female infants have equivalent rates of cancer. Overall, 233 cases were diagnosed per million infants. White infants have 40% more cancer than black infants.
The types of cancer found most often in children up to 15 years old are leukemia, brain and central nervous system cancers, lymphoma, soft tissue sarcomas, kidney tumors, and cancer of the bones.
The most common cancers in adults affect different types of tissues than the cancers in children. In adults, the tissues most affected by cancer are those that cover parts of the body (including internal parts or organs.) These are called "epithelial" tissues and include tissues in the colon, lung, and breast. The accumulation of damage to cells over the years can cause cancer in such tissues. Damage to the lungs from smoking would be a good example. Because children are young, such long-term, accumulated damage has not had a chance to occur. The causes of cancer in children are likely to be different from causes of many cancers in adults. Most cancer in children forms in connective tissues, the blood, or the nervous system, not in epithelial cells.
In California, leukemia is the leading cause of cancer mortality in persons up to age 19. Leukemia causes more than 35% of deaths for people in this age group, while brain and nervous system cancers cause about 22% of deaths, and lymphomas cause about 8% (3).
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1. Ries LAG, Smith MA, Gurney JG, Linet M, Tamra T, Young JL, Bunin GR, eds. Cancer Incidence and Survival Among Children and Adolescents: United States SEER Program 1975-1995. Bethesda, Md.: National Cancer Institute, SEER Program, 1999.
2. Gurney JG, Smith MA, Ross JA. Chapter 12: Cancer among infants. In: Ries LAG, Smith MA, Gurney JG, Linet M, Tamra T, Young JL, Bunin GR, eds. Cancer Incidence and Survival Among Children and Adolescents: United States SEER Program 1975-1995. Bethesda, Md.: National Cancer Institute, SEER Program, 1999:149-157.
3. Campleman SL, Schlag R, Perkins CL, Glazer E, Kwong SL, Cress RD, Wright WE. Childhood Cancer in California 1988-94. Sacramento: California Department of Health Services, 1999. http://www.ccral.org
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