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Pediatric Cancer Causes, Diagnosis & Stages

Causes & Risk Factors

Lifestyle or Environment

Lifestyle factors usually take many years to influence cancer risk. Researchers don’t think they play much of a role in childhood cancers.

A few environmental factors, such as radiation exposure, have been linked to some types of childhood cancers. Some studies also suggest that some factors parents expose their children to, such as smoking, might increase a child’s risk of certain cancers. More studies, however, are needed to explore these possible links.

So far, research has not shown that environmental causes are a cause of most childhood cancers.

Changes in Genes

Scientists study how certain changes in the DNA inside our cells can cause them to become cancer cells. DNA is the chemical that makes up our genes. DNA affects the risk for developing certain diseases, including some kinds of cancer.

Genes that help cells grow, divide, or stay alive are called oncogenes. Genes that slow down cell division, repair mistakes in a cell’s DNA, or cause cells to die at the right time are called tumor suppressor genes.

Cancers can be caused by DNA changes that keep oncogenes turned on, or that turn off tumor suppressor genes.

Inherited versus Acquired Gene Mutations

Most childhood 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.

Acquired mutations happen only in the person’s cancer cells and do not get passed on to his or her children.

We do not know the causes of DNA changes in most childhood cancers. Some cancers may have outside causes. But many cancers are likely to be the result of random events that sometimes happen inside a cell, without having an outside cause.

Learn more about family history of cancer.

Diagnosis & Stages

Your child’s doctor may consider these factors when choosing a test to diagnose cancer:

  • The type of cancer suspected
  • Your child’s signs and symptoms
  • Your child’s age and general health
  • The results of earlier medical tests

In addition to a physical exam, your doctor may use these tests to diagnose childhood cancer:

  • Blood tests. Levels of certain cells that are too high or too low can mean certain types of cancer are present.
  • Health care providers remove cells or tissues so they can be viewed under a microscope to check for signs of cancer. Sometimes providers do a biopsy using imaging tests, such as a CT or MRI scan.
  • Bone marrow aspiration and biopsy. A provider removes cells or tissue from bone marrow, the spongy, fatty tissue found inside larger bones, so they can be viewed under a microscope to check for signs of cancer.
  • Lumbar puncture (spinal tap). A provider uses a needle to take a sample of cerebral spinal fluid to look for cancer cells or tumor markers.
  • An ultrasound uses sound waves to create a picture of the internal organs.
  • Computed tomography (CT or CAT) scan. A CT scan takes pictures of the inside of the body using x-rays taken from different angles.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). An MRI uses magnetic fields, not x-rays, to create detailed images of the body. Sometimes the patient gets injected with a special dye called a contrast medium before the scan. The dye helps create a clearer picture.
  • Positron emission tomography (PET) or PET-CT scan. A PET scan creates pictures of organs and tissues inside the body. A PET scan usually happens with a CT scan. This is called a PET-CT scan.
  • Scans or radioisotope studies. A health care provider injects the patient with a material that has a small amount of radioactive substance, called a tracer. The provider then follows the tracer with a special camera or x-ray to see where it goes.

The child may get some of these tests more than once to find out how well the treatment is working. In addition, review tips and guidance on how to prepare your child for medical procedures.

Your child’s doctor will review diagnostic test results with you. If the diagnosis is cancer, these results also help the doctor categorize or describe the cancer. This is called staging.

Meet Our Pediatric Cancer Specialists

Clinical Trials

Clinical trials at HCI test new ways to treat, diagnose, and manage symptoms and side effects of cancer. One of our priorities is to make sure children with cancer have access to clinical trials. We take part in the Children’s Oncology Group (COG), where we consistently rank in the top ten of more than 220 member institutions for clinical trial enrollments. In the most recent COG report, our institution ranked first for enrollments to treatment trials and second for non-treatment trials among COG member institutions.

Many studies look at new drugs or new combinations of existing treatments. Trials may be available for patients with any stage of cancer and at any phase of treatment.

Related Programs & Services

Cancer Questions

The G. Mitchell Morris Cancer Learning Center (CLC) at Huntsman Cancer Institute is your source for free cancer information. Services include speaking to a cancer information specialist one-on-one, a free cancer library, and community engagement.

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Family Cancer Assessment Clinic

The Family Cancer Assessment Clinic (FCAC) helps families find out if they have inherited syndromes that cause a higher risk of cancer. This includes Li Fraumeni syndrome, Lynch syndrome, paraganglioma, and others.

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Fertility Preservation for Children

One significant side-effect of cancer treatment is that it can lead to infertility after treatment. Discussing cancer and infertility is most helpful when you talk to your doctor as early as possible after cancer diagnosis, as it’s best if fertility treatment occurs before chemotherapy or other cancer treatments.

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HIAYA Program

The Huntsman-Intermountain Adolescent and Young Adult Cancer Care (HIAYA) program serves patients between 15 and 39 years old who have been diagnosed with cancer. The program guides AYAs through cancer treatment and survivorship to make sure the unique needs of this age group are met.

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Long-term Care for Survivors of Pediatric Cancers

Our specialists work with adult survivors of childhood cancer to manage the unique long-term aspects of their treatment.

Pediatric and Rare Tumor Clinic

The Pediatric and Rare Tumor Clinic focuses on hereditary syndromes that cause an increased risk for cancer and tumors in children and adults.

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Pediatric Palliative Care

This program is here to help both the child and family deal with feelings, symptoms, and concerns during a time that may be frightening, confusing and overwhelming. Our team works with you to develop goals of care for your child based on their medical condition.

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