Types of cancer in children and teenagers

What is cancer?

Cancer is a disease of the cells in the body. When cancer develops, the cells change and grow in an abnormal way. These cancer cells can affect how tissues and organs work properly in the body. A group of cells can form a tumour anywhere in the body. The tumour can be either benign or malignant.

Benign tumours are not cancer and do not spread, whereas malignant tumours are cancer and can spread to other parts of the body. Cancer in children develops in different parts of their body to adults. But similar treatments can be used in both adults and children

How common is it?

Cancer in children is very rare. It is much less common than cancer in adults.

Types of children's cancer

There are many different types of cancer in children. The most common ones are discussed below. About one-third of all children´s cancers are leukaemias. The most common solid tumours are brain tumours. If your child has a rare type of cancer, talk to the doctors and nurses about it, as they can give you more information.



  • Leukaemia is cancer of the white blood cells. White blood cells are made in your bone marrow and fight infection.
  • The symptoms of leukaemia include feeling tired, being pale, unusual bleeding and repeated infections.
  • A blood test and a bone marrow biopsy are needed to diagnose leukaemia.
  • There are four main types of leukaemia.

Brain tumour

  • Your brain and spinal cord form the central nervous system (CNS), which controls all the functions in your body. Cancer can grow in many parts of the brain.
  • The tumours can press down on the brain and cause damage. The symptoms of a brain tumour depend on where the tumour is located.
  • The symptoms can include headaches, feeling sick or vomiting, seizures (fits), drowsiness and irritability.
  • A range of tests is needed to diagnose a brain tumour. These include a CT scan, MRI scan, blood tests and biopsy. Other tests may also be needed.
  • For more information on brain tumours in children, please see our Helping Hand booklet.


  • Sarcoma is cancer of the supporting structures of the body. This includes muscle and bone.
  • There are two main types of sarcoma: soft tissue sarcoma and bone sarcoma.
  • The symptoms of sarcoma depend on where the tumour is located. You may notice that your child has a lump, swelling or painful area.
  • A range of different X-rays and biopsies may be needed to diagnose a sarcoma.

Germ cell tumour

  • Germ cell tumours are cancers that develop in the cells that make eggs or sperm.
  • Most germ cell tumours occur in the testicles or the ovaries but may appear in another part of your body as well.
  • The symptoms usually include a lump.
  • Different scans, X-rays and blood tests may be needed to diagnose it.


  • Lymphoma is cancer of the lymphatic system. The lymphatic system is part of your immune system.
  • There are two main types of lymphoma: Hodgkin and non–Hodgkin lymphoma.
  • The symptoms include a painless lump or swelling, night sweats and weight loss.
  • A biopsy is usually needed to diagnose it.

Liver cancer

  • The liver has many roles: it helps the blood to clot, forms cholesterol, maintains the body´s fluid balance, breaks down carbohydrates and fats, and get rids of harmful substances from your body.
  • The symptoms of liver cancer include a lump or swelling in the tummy, weight loss, feeling sick (nausea) and vomiting.
  • An ultrasound scan, MRI scan and blood tests may be needed to diagnose it.


  • Neuroblastoma is cancer of special nerve cells called neural crest cells. These cells are part of your nervous system.
  • Neuroblastoma can occur anywhere in the body.
  • The symptoms include loss of appetite, tiredness and pain in the bones. Other symptoms depend on where the tumour is found.
  • Tests such as blood tests, urine tests and some specialised scans may be needed to diagnose it.


  • Retinoblastoma is a rare tumour of the eye.
  • In some cases retinoblastoma can be due to an inherited gene.
  • The symptoms include a painful red eye, a squint, or the affected eye may appear white in a photograph.
  • A diagnosis is usually made by examining the eye. Your child may need other tests like blood tests, a lumber puncture, MRI and ultrasound scans.

Wilms' tumour

  • Wilms' tumour is a type of kidney cancer.
  • The symptoms include a swelling of the tummy, blood in the urine and weight loss.
  • Urine and blood tests are needed to diagnose it. An ultrasound scan and MRI scan may be needed to find out the extent of the cancer (staging).

Call our Cancer Nurseline

Freephone 1800 200 700 to talk to a specialist cancer nurse
It's open Monday-Thursday from 9am to 6pm and Friday from 9am to 5pm

Date Last Reviewed: 
Tuesday, August 25, 2015
Date Last Revised: 
Tuesday, August 25, 2015