Cancer in Children

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Causes, Risk Factors, and Prevention TOPICS

What are the risk factors and causes of childhood cancer?

A risk factor is anything that changes your chance of getting a disease such as cancer. Different cancers have different risk factors.

Lifestyle-related risk factors play a major role in many types of cancer in adults. Examples include being overweight, eating an unhealthy diet, not getting enough exercise, and habits like smoking and drinking alcohol. But lifestyle factors usually take many years to influence cancer risk, and they are not thought to play much of a role in childhood cancers.

A few environmental factors, such as radiation exposure, have been linked with some types of childhood cancers. But so far, most childhood cancers have not been shown to have outside causes.

In recent years, scientists have made great progress in understanding how certain changes in our DNA can cause cells to become cancerous. DNA is the chemical in each of our cells that makes up our genes – the instructions for nearly everything our cells do. We usually look like our parents because they are the source of our DNA. But DNA affects more than just how we look. It also influences our risks for developing certain diseases, including some kinds of cancer.

Some genes (parts of our DNA) contain instructions for controlling when our cells grow, divide into new cells, and die. Genes that help cells grow, divide, or stay alive are called oncogenes. Others that slow down cell division or cause cells to die at the right time are called tumor suppressor genes. Cancers can be caused by DNA changes that turn on oncogenes or turn off tumor suppressor genes.

Some children inherit DNA changes (mutations) from a parent that increase their risk of cancer. These changes are present in every cell of the child’s body. This means the changes can often be found by testing the DNA of blood cells or other body cells.

But most cancers are not caused by inherited DNA changes. They are the result of DNA changes that happen early in the child’s life, sometimes even before birth. Every time a cell prepares to divide into 2 new cells, it must copy its DNA. This process is not perfect, and errors sometimes occur, especially when the cells are growing quickly. This kind of gene mutation can happen at any time in life and is called an acquired mutation.

Acquired mutations start in one cell. That cell then passes the mutation on to all the cells that come from it. These acquired DNA changes are only in the person’s cancer cells and will not be passed on to his or her children.

Sometimes the causes of gene changes in certain adult cancers are known (such as cancer-causing chemicals in cigarette smoke), but the reasons for DNA changes that cause most childhood cancers are not known. Some may have outside causes like radiation exposure, and others may have causes that have not yet been found. But many are likely to be caused by random events that sometimes happen inside a cell, without having an outside cause.


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