Signs of Childhood Cancer

Signs of Childhood Cancer

When a child has aches and pains, or is simply not feeling well, the possibility of cancer doesn’t even come to a parent’s mind.

When a doctor finally says, “We haven’t ruled out cancer,” a parent probably still thinks it can’t be possible.

But one in every 285 children will be diagnosed with cancer before the age of 20, and for most childhood cancers, there is no explanation.

The beginning stages of some childhood cancers have symptoms which mimic other common childhood illnesses – so they are treated as such. For example, there are countless stories of pain/swelling being misdiagnosed as a sports injury, when in fact it is a sarcoma.  By the time the cancer is diagnosed, it may have spread to a distant site, making it more difficult to treat. 

The “Signs of Childhood Cancer” nemonic below, written by Patty Feist, is a reminder of how difficult it can be to diagnose a childhood cancer. See the additional resources below for more details on the signs and symptoms of childhood cancer. Ultimately, parents are their children’s best advocates to get the tests that may be required to rule out cancer.    

Signs of Childhood Cancer – by Patty Feist (reprinted with permission)

Continued, unexplained weight loss

Headaches, often with early morning vomiting

Increased swelling or persistent pain in bones, joints, back or legs

Lump or mass, especially in the abdomen, neck, chest, pelvis or armpits

Development of excessive bruising, bleeding or rash

Constant infections

A whitish color behind the pupil

Nausea which persists or vomiting without nausea

Constant tiredness or noticeable paleness

Eye or vision changes which occur suddenly and persist

Recurrent or persistent fevers of unknown origin


For more detailed information on signs and symptoms of childhood cancers:

Pediatric Oncology Resource Center

National Cancer Institute