Many of the early signs and symptoms of cancer in children can also be caused by common illnesses or injuries, making childhood cancer hard to recognise and difficult to diagnose.

Children with cancer might display cold and flu-like symptoms, bruising, headaches and other signs and symptoms which may mask the early signs of cancer.

What are childhood cancer signs and symptoms?

Signs are things that someone else may notice and identify. Signs for childhood cancers can include  lumps, masses or swelling that a doctor finds during an exam. These signs may be present in the abdomen, armpits, pelvis, neck or chest.

A symptom is something that is felt by the patient, such as pain or lethargy. Some signs and symptoms for cancers can vary depending on the age of the child.

mother and child

How does childhood cancer produce signs and symptoms?

In childhood cancers such as neuroblastomas, the tumours may grow large enough to be felt by a parent or doctor during an exam. The tumours may also lead to other symptoms by pressing on surrounding tissue or organs. Neuroblastomas produce different symptoms depending on where they are located. For example, a neuroblastoma in the abdomen may grow large enough to press on blood and lymph vessels, preventing fluids from reaching the heart. This may to lead to swollen legs.

Brain cancers can cause swelling of the brain or block the flow of the cerebrospinal fluid, which leads to increased pressure in the skull and causes a variety of symptoms including seizures, vision problems and headaches.

In leukaemia, which rarely has a sign such as a tumour, the common symptoms are caused by a shortage of normal blood cells.  Symptoms caused by this shortage can include dizziness, weakness, fever, a tendency to bruise easily, bleeding gums and frequent nosebleeds.

What are the common general signs and symptoms of childhood cancer?

While there are a variety of others factors and illnesses which may cause any of these symptoms, always discuss any changes in a child’s physical demeanor or health with a doctor.

Lumps, masses or tumours may be signs of certain childhood cancers and should be examined by a doctor for diagnosis.

Neuroblastomas can produce different symptoms depending on where the tumour is located and what it is pressing against. Some of these symptoms include loss of appetite, nausea, constipation, diarrhoea, backaches, leg pain or weakness, chest pain, coughing, difficulty breathing. Neuroblastomas also can cause changes in vision, black eyes, and droopy eyelids.

Symptoms for brain cancer can include headaches, seizures, impaired speech and/or vision, poor coordination and balance, difficulty swallowing, vomiting, tingling or weakness in the arms and legs.

Leukemia produces several symptoms, including dizziness, weakness, fever, a tendency to bruise easily, bleeding gums and frequent nosebleeds.

Many of the symptoms related to childhood cancers can also be caused by other illnesses. It’s important to discuss any changes or symptoms with a doctor.