What is childhood cancer?

The organs and tissues of the body are made up of tiny building blocks called cells. Cancer is a disease of these cells.

Normally, cells divide in an orderly and controlled way, but if for some reason the process gets out of control, the cells carry on dividing. In many cases these cells develop into a lump called a tumour. Tumours are either benign (non-cancerous) or malignant (cancerous). Doctors can tell if a tumour is benign or malignant by removing a piece of tissue (biopsy) and examining a small sample of cells under a microscope.

In a benign tumour, the cells do not spread to other parts of the body and so are not cancerous. However, they may carry on growing at the original site, and may cause a problem by pressing on surrounding organs.

In a malignant tumour, the cancer cells have the ability to spread beyond the original area of the body. If the tumour is left untreated, it may spread into surrounding tissue.

Cancer can occur in different parts of the body – there are more than 200 different types of cancer, each with its own name and treatment. Cancer can occur in organs of the body such as the kidney or the brain. These are sometimes called solid tumours.

The types of cancers that occur most often in children are different from those seen in adults.

Sometimes cells break away from the original (primary) cancer. They may spread to other organs in the body through the bloodstream or lymphatic system. When the cancer cells reach a new area they may go on dividing and form a new tumour. This is known as a secondary cancer or a metastasis.

Cancer can also occur in the blood cells in the bone marrow (leukaemia) or in the lymphatic system (lymphoma).

This information was written by the Children’s Cancer and Leukaemia Group (CCLG). For more information, click here.

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