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Together is a new resource for anyone affected by pediatric cancer - patients and their parents, family members, and friends.

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Childhood Cancer Symptoms and Diagnosis

How is childhood cancer diagnosed?

Every diagnosis of childhood cancer is different. 

But the path often begins when a child has signs and symptoms that prompt a parent to take them to see their health care provider.

The signs and symptoms of childhood cancer can be like common childhood illnesses and injuries. Because childhood cancer is so rare, the provider may not suspect it at first.

image of patient Isaiah getting examined

Childhood cancer is rare, and its signs and symptoms can be like those for other conditions. So, the provider may not suspect cancer at first.

Diagnosis of childhood cancer

The first step of diagnosis is a physical exam. Your health care provider also asks about your child’s medical history. They look at general health, including signs of disease, such as lumps or anything else that seems unusual.

The doctor may also do a neurological exam . It tests how well the nervous system works. It can include an exam of awareness and interaction, motor function and balance, and ability to sense temperature or pressure.

image of patient Isaiah getting examined

Most diagnoses begin with a physical exam.

Tests to diagnose childhood cancer

These are some of the tests used to diagnose childhood cancer:

When choosing a diagnostic test, the provider may consider:

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

Importance of a biopsy

For most types of cancer, a biopsy is the only way to get an accurate diagnosis. In a biopsy, the health care provider takes a small sample of tissue. This sample is sent for testing in a lab. If a biopsy is not possible, the provider may suggest other tests to help make a diagnosis. Other tests are then needed to know the specific type of cancer, its stage, and genetic makeup.

Test results and making a treatment plan

If test results suggest cancer, the health care provider will likely refer the patient to a pediatric cancer center for further tests to diagnose the specific type of cancer.

Members of the medical team will discuss the results of tests with parents or guardians. The team and family work together to develop a treatment plan. The care team will use test results to help plan the best treatment.

stock photo of health care provider and patient

Talk with your care provider to develop a treatment plan.

Tips for families

It is normal to feel scared and overwhelmed when your child has cancer. Your care team can help you. Treatments for childhood cancers are improving all the time. Talk to your care team about resources for you and your family.

Questions to ask the care team about tests to diagnose childhood cancer

  • Why are certain tests needed?
  • How will the results of this test influence treatment?
  • What will my child experience during the test?
  • What can I do to prepare my child for treatment?
  • Are there medicines to reduce pain during the test?
  • Are there risks related to the test?

Key points about childhood cancer diagnosis

  • The first step of cancer diagnosis is a physical exam. Your health care provider also asks about your child’s health history.
  • To diagnose cancer, your provider may order different kinds of tests, including blood tests, imaging tests, and biopsies.
  • For most types of cancer, a biopsy is the only way to get an accurate diagnosis. A biopsy is a small tissue sample that is sent to the lab.
  • Ask your care team questions about the tests and results. Learn what you can about the results so you can take part in planning and advocate for your child.
  • You are not alone. Your care team can support you and give you resources.

For more information

Reviewed: May 2023