What are the differences between cancers in adults and children?
Cancer starts when cells in the body begin to grow out of control. Cells in nearly any part of the body can become cancer, and can spread to other areas of the body. To learn more about how cancers start and spread, see What Is Cancer?
The types of cancers that develop in children are often different from the types that develop in adults. Childhood cancers are often the result of DNA changes in cells that take place very early in life, sometimes even before birth. Unlike many cancers in adults, childhood cancers are not strongly linked to lifestyle or environmental risk factors.
There are some exceptions, but childhood cancers tend to respond better to treatments such as chemotherapy (also called chemo). Children’s bodies also tend to handle chemotherapy better than adults’ bodies do. But cancer treatments such as chemo and radiation therapy can cause long-term side effects, so children who have had cancer need careful follow-up for the rest of their lives.
Since the 1960s, most children and teens with cancer have been treated at specialized centers designed for them. These centers offer the advantage of being treated by a team of specialists who know the differences between adult and childhood cancers, as well as the unique needs of children and teens with cancer and their families. This team usually includes pediatric oncologists (childhood cancer doctors), surgeons, radiation oncologists, pathologists, pediatric oncology nurses, and nurse practitioners.
These centers also have psychologists, social workers, child life specialists, nutritionists, rehabilitation and physical therapists, and educators who can support and educate the entire family. (See Children Diagnosed With Cancer: Understanding the Health Care System for more on the professionals who help treat children with cancer.)
In the United States, most children with cancer are treated at a center that is a member of the Children’s Oncology Group (COG). All of these centers are associated with a university or children’s hospital. As we have learned more about treating childhood cancer, it has become even more important that treatment be given by experts in this area.
Any time a child is diagnosed with cancer, it affects every family member and nearly every aspect of the family’s life. You can read more about coping with these changes in Children Diagnosed With Cancer: Dealing With Diagnosis.
Last Medical Review: 01/13/2015
Last Revised: 01/27/2016