Pediatric oncology is the research and treatment of cancers in children and young adults. Pediatric oncologists study and train in both pediatrics and oncology. The types of cancers that develop in children are often different from cancers that develop in adults. Because of this, pediatric oncologists specialize in treating infants, children, young adults and teenagers who have cancer. 

Childhood cancers can develop as the result of DNA changes in cells that occur early in life, even before birth. Some adult cancers are linked to environmental or lifestyle factors. Cancers that occur in children are very rarely related to any type of environmental or lifestyle factor. 

Childhood cancers include:

  • Brain and spinal cord tumor—a disease in which abnormal cells form in the tissues of the brain or spinal cord. The majority of childhood brain tumors are diagnosed and removed in surgery. These types of tumors account for about one-fourth of childhood cancers.
  • Leukemia—this cancer affects the body's blood-forming tissues, including the bone marrow and lymphatic system. Leukemia accounts for almost one-third of all cancers in children.
  • Lymphoma—there are two main types of this group of blood cancers that develop in the lymphatic system: Hodgkin's lymphoma and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Both types of lymphoma occur in children, making up a combined 8 percent of childhood cancers.
  • Neuroblastoma—this rare type of cancer nearly always affects children. Neuroblastoma develops from nerve cells in the fetus known as neuroblasts. Neuroblastoma can be inherited and these types of tumors usually develop in the adrenal glands.

Other common childhood cancers include Wilms tumor, rhabdomyosarcoma, retinoblastoma and bone cancers, such as osteosarcoma and Ewing sarcoma.

Due to the fact that childhood cancers and adult cancers are not the same, child cancer patients often receive different types of treatment than adult cancer patients. Children's bodies tend to handle chemotherapy better than adults' bodies. However, young children are more likely to be affected by radiation therapy. Chemotherapy and radiation therapy can cause long-term side effects, which children undergoing treatment and their parents need to understand.

What is a pediatric oncology clinic?

A pediatric oncology clinic is a child cancer center that treats infants, toddlers, school-age children, young adults and teenagers up to the age of 18 or 19. Pediatric oncology clinics have a large staff of doctors, nurses, researchers and physical therapists, all of whom are actively involved in caring for children who are undergoing cancer treatment.

As a patient at a pediatric oncology clinic, children receive high-quality care and treatment in an environment designed specifically for younger age groups. Many pediatric cancer centers are research facilities, in which child and teen patients undergo clinical trials or receive new, cutting-edge forms of treatment.

Many pediatric cancer centers create a kid-friendly environment for patients and their families. Doctors offices, patient rooms and waiting rooms have a welcoming, less-clinical feel. Social workers are on hand to help families make schooling arrangements and transition their child in and out of treatment. Pediatric oncologists are trained to talk to children and their parents about cancer treatment in ways that are easy for everyone to understand.

What is pediatric oncology hematology?

Pediatric hematology involves the study and treatment of blood diseases and blood forming organs in the body of infants, children and adolescents. Many pediatric doctors train in both oncology and hematology. In some cases, if a hematologist identifies a possible blood cancer in a child, they will be referred to a pediatric oncologist.

Pediatric oncologists/hematologists specialize in treating childhood cancers and blood disorders in children from birth through young adulthood. Blood disorders involve problems in the body with red blood cells, white blood cells, platelets, blood vessels, bone marrow and lymph nodes.

Types of blood disorders in children and teens include:

  • Anemia—a common blood disorder in which there are fewer red blood cells in the body than normal, or there is a low concentration of hemoglobin in the blood. There are multiple types of anemia, such as aplastic anemia, where stem cells in the bone marrow do not make enough new blood cells.
  • Sickle cell disease—a group of blood disorders that prevent normal blood flow because of the effect on the hemoglobin within red blood cells. Sickle cell disease is the most common inherited blood disorder in the U.S.
  • There are many other blood disorders that can occur in children, which a pediatric oncologist/hematologist is trained to diagnose and treat.

The latest in pediatric oncology research

Many pediatric oncology clinics are at the forefront of child cancer research, performing clinical trials and developing new and innovative ways to treat children and adolescents who have developed cancer at a young age.

According to the American Cancer Society, children have far better outcomes for surviving cancer than less than 50 years ago. In the 1970s, children with acute lymphocytic leukemia had a 57 percent five-year survival rate. Today, kids with this type of leukemia—the most common cancer in children—have a 90 percent five-year survival rate.

Quality care for children undergoing cancer treatment

At Rocky Mountain Hospital for Children, a dedicated team of doctors, nurses and staff strives to provide the most amazing care for children in the Denver metro region. Rocky Mountain Hospital for Children is a leader for child cancer treatment — our top-rated clinic ensures that children receive the best treatment from physicians who are experts in the field of pediatric oncology.

Parents who have questions about child cancers, blood disorders that occur in children or hereditary cancers should speak to a pediatrician about these concerns. Early detection is crucial in diagnosing and treating childhood cancers and blood diseases that affect infants, children and adolescents. Talk to your child's doctor for more information about cancers and other diseases that can develop in children.