The 8 Most Common Cancers in Children

Most childhood cancers are treatable

Childhood cancer is one of the scariest diagnoses a parent can receive. Luckily, cancer in kids is quite rare—fewer than 11,000 kids in the U.S. get a cancer diagnosis every year.

Most childhood cancers are very treatable and have a high survival rate. Let’s review the eight most common childhood cancers, their survival rates, and some common signs and symptoms of each. 

Child being examined by doctor

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Childhood Cancer Basics

The idea that your child will need to undergo harsh treatments or surgery can be a devastating prospect for parents. Keeping an eye out for common childhood cancer symptoms can help with anxiety, but be aware they’re likely to have some other cause, so don’t get too worried. Talk to your child’s doctor if you are worried about their health. 

Cancers are diseases caused when the body’s own cells get damaged and grow out of control. These uncontrolled cells grow faster than the rest of the body and become masses of cells called tumors. Depending on where these defective cells come from, the tumors can have unique characteristics. 

Every cancer is different—there are many types for each organ and tissue in the body. The cancers that affect children are often different from those that affect older adults—colon, lung, breast cancers.

The underlying causes and risk factors for pediatric cancers differ from adult cancers, and their treatments and survival rates are different too. About 84% of children diagnosed with cancer are still alive five years later.

Special doctors called pediatric oncologists are trained to treat childhood cancers, whether it’s leukemia, lymphoma, brain tumors, or other cancers. Treatment can include surgery, chemotherapy, and other drugs. Let’s review the basics of common pediatric cancers.

Leukemia

Leukemias are cancers of the bone marrow, the spongy tissue inside your bones. The stem cells that make up the bone marrow can develop into different types of blood cells, including white blood cells, which protect the body from infection.

When they grow out of control, the normal ratio of white blood cells—which keeps the body healthy and functioning—gets out of whack. Both adults and children develop leukemia.

There are two major leukemia types in children: acute myeloid leukemia (AML) and acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). The difference between the two is which type of stem cells in the marrow become cancerous:

  • AML accounts for about 75% of childhood leukemias and arises throughout childhood, though it is slightly more common during the first two years of life.
  • ALL accounts for most of the rest of leukemia cases in children and is most common between 2 and 5 years of age. ALL is slightly more common in Hispanic and White children and boys.

Quick stats on childhood leukemia include:

  • 5-year survival rate in children: ALL, 90%; AML 65%-70%
  • Percent of childhood cancers: 28%

The changes in the ratio of blood cells in the body lead to leukemia symptoms in children, including fever, bruising, infection, anemia, and easy bleeding.

Brain and Spinal Cord Tumors

The second most common type of childhood cancer is the spinal cord and brain tumors. This is a large group of different cancers, all with unique characteristics, treatments, and prognosis. These tumors arise in both adults and children.

Common Brain and Spinal Cord Tumor Types
Name  Cell Type Percentage of Brain and Spinal Cord Tumors in Children
Gliomas Glial cells, which make up the brains’ support system ~50%
Embryonal tumors Nerve cells before they’re fully developed 10-20%
Pineal tumors Cells of the pineal gland, a part of the brain that helps regulate sleep cycles 3-8%
Craniopharyngiomas Cells between the pituitary gland, which controls growth and development, and the brain  4%
Mixed glial and neuroma tumors Tumor’s cells are from both glia and neurons  10%
Schwannomas Start in the cells that surround and insulate the nerves Rare
Based on the type of brain cell the tumor originates from, there are several different types of brain and spinal cord cancers.

Quick stats on brain and spinal cord tumors in children:

  • 5-year survival rate in children: 75%
  • Percent of childhood cancers: 26%

Symptoms of brain tumors in children can include headaches, nausea, vomiting, blurred or double vision, dizziness, seizures, and trouble walking or handling objects.

Neuroblastoma

Besides brain and spinal cord tumors, cancers in children can also originate in the nerve cells, especially when they’re first developing. These cancers are neuroblastomas, and they‘re the most common cancer in infants and kids under 10 and are very rare in adults.

Neuroblastoma tumors can also be a mix of nerve cells and the cells that line the nerves, in which case they’re called ganglioneuroblastoma. Sometimes, the ganglioneuroblastoma cells turn back into regular nerve cells and stop growing with no treatment; these are benign tumors. 

Ganglioneuroblastomas can also have a mix of cell types and malignant parts—likely to spread to other parts of the body—in nature. About 66% of children diagnosed with neuroblastoma already have malignant disease when doctors diagnose the cancer.

Quick stats on childhood neuroblastoma:

  • 5-year survival rate in children: 81%
  • Percent of childhood cancers: 6%

Keep an eye out for swelling in the belly and other symptoms like bone pain and fever. 

Nephroblastoma

Cancers of the kidneys, called nephroblastomas and Wilms tumor, grow from immature cells kidneys, which filter out extra water, salt, and waste from our blood.

Wilms tumor is most common in children 3-4 years old and is slightly more common in girls than boys, and in Black children than in children of other races. These tumors are very rare in adults.

Quick stats on Wilms' tumor:

  • 5-year survival rate in children: 93%
  • Percent of childhood cancers: 5%

Worried parents should watch out for swelling or a lump in the belly, fever, nausea, or poor appetite.

Lymphomas

Lymphomas are cancers of the lymphocytes, white blood cells from the bone marrow cells. These differ from leukemias in the cancerous cells' location: Lymphomas typically stay in the vessels and nodes of the lymph system, while leukemias are found in the bone marrow and blood.

Two major types of lymphomas are relatively common in children: Non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL) and Hodgkin lymphoma (HL). Both children and adults get lymphomas, though common types of NHL in children differ from the common types in adults, and they respond differently to treatments. 

Quick stats on non-Hodgkin lymphoma:

  • 5-year survival rate in children: 91%
  • Percent of childhood cancers: 5-7%

Quick stats on Hodgkin lymphoma:

  • 5-year survival rate in children: 98%
  • Percent of childhood cancers: 3%

Symptoms of lymphomas include weight loss, fever, sweats, tiredness, and lumps under the skin in the neck, armpit, or groin.

Rhabdomyosarcoma

Rhabdomyosarcoma is cancerous tumors in the muscles that move our bodies. These muscles are found throughout our bodies, so these tumors can crop up just about anywhere: The head and neck, the groin, the pelvis, the limbs, or any other place where we have muscles.

Rhabdomyosarcoma is slightly more common in boys. There are several common types, including:

  • Embryonal rhabdomyosarcoma (ERMS): The most common rhabdomyosarcoma, these tumors tend to develop in the head and neck or genital and urinary tracts.
  • Alveolar rhabdomyosarcoma (ARMS): Found mostly in the arms, legs, or abdomen.
  • Anaplastic rhabdomyosarcoma: Is uncommon in children; it usually occurs in adults. 
  • Undifferentiated rhabdomyosarcoma: Is sometimes lumped in with rhabdomyosarcomas. They’re usually sarcomas (cancers of the connective tissues) that can’t be traced to a specific source.

These cancers are uncommon in adults but tend to be more aggressive if they occur. They’re likely to grow faster and be in parts of the body that are harder to treat.

Quick stats on rhabdomyosarcoma:

  • 5-year survival rate in children: 70
  • Percent of childhood cancers: 3%

Symptoms include pain and swelling or a lump. 

Bone Cancers

Cancer of the bones are most common in older adolescents and younger teens, though it can happen in both children and adults. There are two common types of bone cancer in children—osteosarcoma and Ewing sarcoma. 

Osteosarcoma grows from the ends of the leg and arm bones, where they’re lengthening as the child grows taller. Ewing sarcoma is less common and often starts in the hip bones, the ribs or shoulder blades, or in the middle of leg bones.

Quick stats on bone cancer:

  • 5-year survival rate in children: Osteosarcoma 60% ; Ewing Sarcoma 62% 
  • Percent of childhood cancers: 3%

Symptoms of bone cancer include bone pain that gets worse at night or with activity, and swelling around the bones. 

Retinoblastoma

Retinoblastomas, tumors of the eye, is most often found in young children—around the age of 2. It’s rare to find these tumors in children over 6 (or adults). 

Detection of retinoblastoma is frequently due to a missing “red-eye” effect in pictures. If you shine a light in a child’s eye it should look red. If it looks white or pink instead, get your child’s eyes checked.

These eye cancers can start in one of two ways. In about 33% of retinoblastomas, a genetic defect is present throughout the body and has been there since birth—called a congenital defect or a germline mutation. Because it is in every cell of the body, these patients usually get tumors in both eyes.

The rest of childhood retinoblastomas seem to develop spontaneously when one of the developing cells in the eye makes a mistake copying its genetic material, inserting a mutation that then grows into cancer.  These tumors are usually contained to just one eye.

Quick stats on retinoblastoma: 

  • 5-year survival rate in children: 95%
  • Percent of childhood cancers: 2%

Symptoms of eye cancer include different colors in the pupil, crossed eyes, and eye pain.

A Word From Verywell

If you’re worried about your child developing cancer, keep an eye out for the symptoms noted above. These symptoms are most likely to be caused by some other illness or injury, but that also makes it harder to recognize when it actually is cancer. If you see changes in your child, take them to see the doctor. 

If your child has been diagnosed with cancer, the news can be overwhelming—it will throw anyone for a loop. Thankfully, most childhood cancers are treatable and have high survival rates.

Rely on your community and join a support group of other family members and cancer survivors. No one wants to see a child die from cancer. Your child’s treatment team is working hard to help your family beat this.

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Article Sources
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