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Cancer is a significant cause of childhood mortality in developed countries, with statistics showing it as the leading cause of death by disease of U.S. children under the age of 15. Cancers of the blood and of the nervous system — cancers in the cells that grow to form bone, blood, muscle and nerve cells — account for more than half of pediatric cancers. Lymphomas, bone cancers, soft tissue cancers and cancers affecting the kidneys, eyes or adrenal glands also are common pediatric cancers. They can take the form of solid tumors or cells that travel through the body.
The most common of the various pediatric cancers is leukemia. Leukemias are cancers that occur in the cells that produce blood and bone marrow cells. The immature cells produced can mutate into a form of cell that reproduces itself uncontrollably. These cancerous cells then prevent the body from producing normal blood or bone marrow cells. The cancer also can spread throughout the body and interfere with the action of organs essential to the young patient’s survival.
Central nervous system (CNS) tumors in children affect the brain and the spinal cord. Tumors in these areas are solid and can be benign or malignant. The symptoms of CNS cancers can include seizures, behavioral changes and weakness in the limbs. CNS tumors are treated through surgical removal of the tumor. The system of nerves carrying impulses from the brain to the muscles can also be affected by solid cancers known as neuroblastomas, which are the most common form of cancers in infants.
Lymphomas are pediatric cancers of the lymph system. These cancers occur when the white blood cells that are part of the lymphatic system grow abnormally. Childhood lymphomas are divided into Hodgkin’s lymphoma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. A common symptom of lymphoma is enlargement of a lymph gland, also known as a swollen gland.
Retinoblastoma is the most common form of eye tumor of children. The cancer grows from the cells of the retina in the back of the eye. The cancer can affect one or both eyes, but the majority of patients are cured of the disease with treatment.
Children can also suffer from pediatric sarcomas. These are cancers of the muscle, connective tissue or bone. A nephroblastoma, which is also known as Wilms' tumor or Wilms' disease, is the most common form of cancer of the kidney in children.