Symptoms of Blood Cancer in Children & Young Adults

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: February 2018

Cancers in children are often different than cancers in adults. Leukemia is one of the most common cancers in children. Other common cancers in children include brain and other central nervous system tumors, as well as lymphoma. These cancers combined make up more than half of the cancers in children, but they only account for a small percentage of the cancers found in adults.1

Common symptoms of blood cancer in children

Many of the general symptoms of blood cancers can also be caused by other conditions, so it is important to be evaluated by a healthcare professional to determine the cause of these symptoms. In addition, not every child with blood cancer has the same symptoms. General symptoms that may be caused by blood cancer include:2,3

The feeling of fullness in the abdomen may be due to the liver or spleen becoming swollen with blood cancer cells. If this occurs, a child may not be hungry or may stop eating after only a small amount of food.2,3

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Enlarged lymph nodes that occur in the chest can cause coughing, or a child may complain that breathing is more difficult.2,3

Some children with blood cancer experience a swelling in the thymus, a gland that is located in front of the trachea (windpipe). If the thymus swells and presses on the superior vena cava (a major vein that carries blood back to the heart), it can potentially cause swelling of the face, neck, upper chest and arms. This is also called superior vena cava syndrome, and it is a serious condition that needs immediate medical treatment. Superior vena cava syndrome may cause a child to have a bluish-red skin color, headaches, dizziness, or a change in consciousness. Seek immediate medical care if these symptoms are present.2

Impact of red and white blood cells

When blood cancer cells begin to multiply, they can crowd out the healthy blood cells. If the red blood cells are reduced, it causes anemia, which can cause fatigue, weakness, headaches, pale skin, or feeling lightheaded.4 If the white blood cells are reduced, a child may experience multiple infections or infections that won't go away, fevers, sore throats, and skin sores.5 If the platelets are reduced, a child may experience frequent bruises, frequent nosebleeds, and may bleed easily from cuts.6

How blood cancer develops in children

Cancers can occur when there are changes to the DNA of the cell. DNA is the genetic material of the cell that includes instructions for how a cell should normally divide and develop. Each time any cell in the body divides, it makes a new copy of its DNA. Sometimes errors occur during this replication, and some of these errors can cause cancer to develop.1

While some of these errors to the DNA, called mutations, can be passed from parents to children (inherited genes) or occur from exposure to certain factors in the environment, it is still unknown what causes most cancers in children. The blood cancers that occur in children most often are the result of spontaneous mutations that occur very early in life.1,2

Of all cancers that occur in children, one of the most common types of childhood cancer is acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL), which develops from the lymphoid cells in the bone marrow. Other blood cancers that can occur in children include acute myeloid leukemia (AML) or lymphoma. It is rare for children to develop chronic leukemia, although it can occur in some cases.1