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Diagnosing Childhood Cancer

Every diagnosis of childhood cancer is different. But the journey typically begins when a child has signs and symptoms that prompt a parent to take the child to the doctor.

At first, the signs and symptoms of childhood cancer are similar to more common childhood illnesses and injuries. Because childhood cancer is so rare, the doctor may not suspect it at first.

These signs and symptoms may occur because of another condition. It is possible that someone with cancer will not experience any of them.

  • Persistent fever of unknown origin
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Headaches, often with early morning vomiting
  • Persistent pain or swelling in the bones, joints, back, or legs
  • Lump or mass, especially in the abdomen, neck, chest, pelvis, or armpits
  • Excessive bruising, bleeding, or rash
  • Frequent infections
  • Whitish color behind the pupil
  • Persistent nausea and vomiting
  • Constant tiredness and weakness
  • Eye or vision changes that occur suddenly and persist

Physical exam and medical history

The physician will complete a physical exam and ask about the patient’s medical history. The doctor looks at general signs of health, including signs of disease, such as lumps or anything else that seems unusual.

The doctor may also perform a neurological exam.

Medical tests

Depending on the patient’s signs and symptoms, the physician may order

When choosing a diagnostic test, the doctor may consider:

  • Type of cancer suspected
  • Patient’s signs and symptoms
  • Patient’s age and medical condition
  • Results of earlier medical tests

Questions to ask

Parents have the right and should ask questions about the tests that are being performed. These questions may include:

  • Why is the test necessary?
  • How will the results influence treatment?
  • What will my child experience during the test?
  • What can I do to prepare my child?
  • Are there medicines to reduce pain during the test?
  • Are there risks to performing the test?

If test results suggest cancer, the doctor will likely will refer the patient to a pediatric cancer center for further diagnostic tests.

For most types of cancer, a biopsy is the only way to diagnose cancer accurately. In a biopsy, the doctor takes a small sample of tissue for testing in a laboratory. If a biopsy is not possible, the doctor may suggest other tests that will help make a diagnosis.

Other tests are then needed to pinpoint the specific type of cancer, its stage, and genetic makeup. A doctor and perhaps other members of the medical team will discuss the results of tests with the parents and work with them to develop a treatment plan. Doctors use the results of these tests to determine the best treatment for each patient.

Types of Tests used in Diagnosing Cancer

Laboratory (pathology) tests
Diagnostic Imaging tests


Reviewed: June 2018

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