Spotting Pediatric Cancer: How to Know Whether Your Child Should be Seen
By Gina Smith
Sep 14, 2016
Updated Oct 25, 2023
5 min read
There are not tests or studies to use as routine screening for childhood cancers such as leukemia, brain tumors, and a variety of solid tumors, which most commonly affect children. Still, parents can take steps to help detect childhood cancers early.
The first line of defense: annual exams by a child’s primary care provider or pediatrician. During these exams, the health care provider can touch and palpate internal organs, examine the skin, perform neurological exams and routine lab tests, and record family health history.
There also are signs to watch. Maybe a child has significant, unexplained bruising. At first, a parent might think the child is accident-prone, regularly bumping into things or falling. But this type of bruising, when brought to a physician’s attention, can work as an early-detection for leukemia – which helps us save lives.
Maybe a child falls and hits her head, and a parent brings her to the pediatrician’s office. There have been times when a pediatrician’s exam led to an MRI, which detected a brain tumor. While the child had no symptoms of a brain tumor prior to the fall, that visit to the pediatrician made all the difference in the world for early detection and successful cancer treatment.
Developmental milestones also act as a good detection tool. Pediatricians ask about developmental milestones not to compare if your child is smart or advanced, but to determine whether something may be impeding normal growth and development. Some parents have told their care provider that a child’s development lags behind that of his or her siblings, which has resulted in detection of a brain tumor.
Teachers can be a great help as well. They are with children each day, and know when a child begins to behave differently. Teachers can tell parents about their observations, such as complaints of continuous headaches, chronic tummy aches, and not being able to see the board. Sometimes, this helps parents know to have their child examined by his/ her primary care provider.
While cancer is the leading cause of death from disease for U.S. children, pediatric cancer survival rates have improved dramatically with newer, more effective treatments and early detection. Overall survival is now estimated at 81%, although survival rates vary according to the type of cancer.
We all can work together to help catch childhood cancers in the early stages. There are additional symptoms that, if recognized in a child or teen, may warrant a closer look by a primary care provider. Remember, these symptoms do not necessarily mean your child has cancer. But the symptoms can be a good indication you should contact your child’s provider for further assessment.
What to Look For
What to Do
Contact your health care provider for follow-up. Primary Children’s Hospital’s website has more information on pediatric cancer care.