Children and young people with blood cancer

29 Aug 2017

Every year, over a thousand children and young people are diagnosed with a type of leukaemia or lymphoma.  Being told that you - or a loved one - have cancer can be one of the hardest things you’ll ever have to hear.  

Research is moving us towards a world where no-one develops blood cancer. Until then, we're here to help answer any questions you have along the way.

Joe was diagnosed with leukaemia when he was two - watch him talk about his experience.

What are the symptoms of childhood blood cancer?

A child or young person with blood cancer may:

  • be pale, extremely tired, dizzy and breathless (because of anaemia)
  • get infections easily and find it hard to fight them off
  • have bruising and / or unusual bleeding. This might include:
    • bleeding gums
    • nosebleeds
    • a rash of round red or purple spots (petechial rash) caused by bleeding under the skin
  • feel pain in their tummy, chest, or bones
  • lose weight unexpectedly
  • have swollen glands or swellings in their head, neck, or groin
  • experience drenching night sweats
  • have unexplained itching, either widespread or in one place.

Every child and young person is different and no two children will have exactly the same symptoms.

Blood cancer symptoms can be quite vague and many of them are shared with illnesses like colds and flu.  Lumps and bumps can also be caused by other less serious conditions. So see your doctor if you/your child have symptoms or groups of symptoms that you think are unusual for you/them, or last for longer than normal.  Don't be afraid to go back to your doctor if the symptoms continue (are persistent).

What causes children and young people to develop blood cancer?

One of the most common questions asked by young people affected by blood cancer and their parents and families is ‘Why did this happen to us?’

Unfortunately, this isn't a question we can answer at the moment.  While we know that blood cancers are caused by changes in our DNA, in practically all cases these changes to our DNA happen for reasons we can’t explain and / or are linked to things we can’t control.

It's important to realise that there's nothing a child, young person, or their family has done that has led to them developing blood cancer, and there's nothing that you could have done to prevent it from happening. Our researchers are working hard to find out more about what causes blood cancer in children and young people.

What types of blood cancer do children and young people get?

Most children and young people with blood cancer have a type of leukaemia or lymphoma. They can develop some other types of blood cancer but this is extremely rare, with only a handful developing these other types every year.

Babies and children

The most common type of cancer in children aged 14 and under is leukaemia. This may be a type of fast-growing leukaemia called childhood acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (around 350 children a year), or more rarely childhood acute myeloid leukaemia (around 50 children a year).

Children can also develop lymphoma. This is most likely to be fast-growing (high-grade) non-Hodgkin lymphoma (around 80 children a year), but it’s also possible for them to develop Hodgkin lymphoma (60 children a year).

Young people and young adults

The most common type of blood cancer in teenagers and young adults between 15 and 24 years old is lymphoma (380 cases a year).  Most young people with lymphoma have Hodgkin lymphoma.  It’s possible for young people to develop non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL), but it’s much less common.

Around 170 young people a year develop fast-growing (acute) leukaemia. Most will have acute myeloid leukaemia (AML) but some will have acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL)  A small number of young people develop a slower-growing type of leukaemia called chronic myeloid leukaemia (CML).

Federica talks aboutbeing diagnosed and treated for Hodgkin lymphoma

Treatment for children and young people with blood cancer

The exact treatment depends on the type of blood cancer a child or young person has, as well as their general health, age, and their and their parent’s wishes.

Generally, chemotherapy (drugs that kill cells and stop them dividing) is the main treatment for blood cancer in children and young people. Often a combination of different drugs are used. Usually several courses of chemotherapy are needed, and treatment may take several years.  

In some cases treatment may also include:

  • immunotherapy (using drugs to encourage the body’s immune system to attack cancer cells)
  • steroid medication
  • radiotherapy (radiation treatment used to shrink lymphoma swellings) if they have lymphoma
  • other medication to help manage any symptoms or treatment side-effects (for example, anti-sickness medication)

Most children and young people will respond well to chemotherapy / immunotherapy but in rare cases the best option for treatment may be a stem cell transplant.

What information and support is available?

Kerry talks about her daughter Nancy and shares her tips for finding the right support