Cancer in Children

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Early Detection, Diagnosis, and Staging TOPICS

How are childhood cancers found?

Screening for childhood cancers

Screening is testing for a disease such as cancer in people who don’t have any symptoms. Childhood cancers are rare, and there are no widely recommended screening tests to look for cancer in children who are not at increased risk.

Some children may have a higher chance of developing a specific type of cancer because of certain gene changes they inherit from a parent. These children may need careful, regular medical check-ups that include special tests to look for early signs of cancer.

Possible signs and symptoms of cancer in children

Many cancers in children are found early, either by a child’s doctor or by parents or relatives. But cancers in children can be hard to recognize right away because early symptoms often overlap with those caused by much more common illnesses or injuries. Children often get sick or have bumps or bruises that might mask the early signs of cancer. Parents should be sure that their children have regular medical check-ups and watch for any unusual signs or symptoms that do not go away. These include:

  • An unusual lump or swelling
  • Unexplained paleness and loss of energy
  • Easy bruising
  • An ongoing pain in one area of the body
  • Limping
  • Unexplained fever or illness that doesn’t go away
  • Frequent headaches, often with vomiting
  • Sudden eye or vision changes
  • Sudden unexplained weight loss

More specific information on symptoms is in the section, “What are the most common types of childhood cancers?” Other symptoms are also possible, depending on the type of cancer.

Most of these symptoms are much more likely to be caused by something other than cancer, such as an injury or infection. Still, if your child has any of these symptoms, see a doctor so that the cause can be found and treated, if needed.

Seeing the doctor

The doctor will ask about the symptoms and examine your child. If cancer is a possible cause, the doctor might order imaging tests (such as x-rays) or other tests. In some cases if an abnormal lump or tumor is found, the doctor might need to remove some or all of it so that it can be looked at under a microscope for cancer cells. This is known as a biopsy.

If your child is found to have cancer, our document Children With Cancer: Dealing With Diagnosis offers ideas for coping and moving forward after the diagnosis is made.


Last Medical Review: 09/05/2013
Last Revised: 01/31/2014