Symptoms and diagnosis of children’s cancer

Mother looking after sick child in bed

Although cancer is rare in children, it’s important to know the symptoms and get any unusual changes checked by your GP. 

The symptoms depend on where the cancer is. The most common children's cancers affect the white blood cells (leukaemia) and the brain.

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Symptoms of leukaemia (cancer of white blood cells)

  • Unexplained, prolonged feeling of tiredness 
  • Looking pale
  • Shortness of breath 
  • Unusual bleeding (like spontaneous nosebleeds, unexplained bruising in unusual places ) 
  • A pinprick rash
  • Swollen lymph nodes lasting for more than a week or two
  • Repeated infections or fever
  • Lasting bone , joint pain or unexplained limping

Symptoms of brain tumours

  • Headaches  – that are severe and worsening   
  • Feeling sick or getting sick accompanied with headache especially in the morning
  • Seizures (fits)
  • Drowsiness or dizziness
  • New eye problems, such as abnormal eye movements, squint, blurring or double vision
  • Irritability and/or change in behaviour
  • Babies or young children with persistent unusual high-pitched crying  

Symptoms of other childhood cancers

  • A lump, swelling or painful area that doesn’t go away
  • Regular unexplained night sweats or high temperatures
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Feeling sick (nausea) or getting sick (vomiting)
  • Loss of appetite
  • Feeling very tired most of the time
  • Lasting bone or joint pain
  • A limp
  • Changes in eyesight, such as a squint, vision problems or eye changes, such as a painful red eye or a white glow or a lack of red eye in photos
  • Blood in pee or poo
  • Swollen lymph nodes lasting for more than a week or two (e.g. in the neck, groin)
  • Flu-like symptoms that don’t clear up – such as temperature, feeling very tired
  • Swollen tummy area

Most of these symptoms can be caused by other more common and less serious conditions, so try not to worry too much.

Always get any unusual changes checked by a doctor.

Going to your GP
Always get any unusual changes checked

You know your child best. It's very rare for children to get cancer, but if you have any worries at all about your child’s health, it’s important to go to your GP as soon as possible. Tell your doctor if you’re worried about cancer, so they can put your mind at rest.

Your GP will ask about your child's symptoms. They will examine your child and may do tests, such as blood tests. 

If necessary, the GP can refer your child to hospital, where a specialist can arrange further tests

If you’re still worried or your child doesn’t get better, don’t be afraid to go back to the doctor or get a second opinion. 

Describing symptoms
Give as much information as possible

Be ready to give your doctor as much information as possible about your child’s symptoms: 

How the symptoms feel

When the symptoms happen

How long they have been going on for

You can write down this information before your appointment, so you don't forget anything.

Diagnosing cancer
How cancer is diagnosed

Your GP will ask about your child's symptoms. They will examine your child and may do tests, such as blood tests. 

If necessary, the GP can refer your child to hospital, where a specialist can arrange further tests.

Tests that can diagnose cancer in children include blood tests, scans and biopsies (taking a sample of cells from the body). The type of tests depend on which cancer is suspected.

Tests are usually done in CHI Crumlin, Dublin. If a brain tumour is suspected, you may go to Beaumont or Temple St Hospital in Dublin. Read more about tests.

For more information

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1800 200 700

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