Childhood Cancer: Treatment Options

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 04/2017

ON THIS PAGE: You will learn about the different treatments doctors use for children with cancer. Use the menu to see other pages.

In general, cancer in children is uncommon. This means it can be hard for doctors to plan treatments unless they know what has been most effective in other children. That’s why more than 60% of children with cancer are treated as part of a clinical trial. A clinical trial is a research study that tests a new approach to treatment. The “standard of care” is the best treatments known. Clinical trials may test such approaches as a new drug, a new combination of standard treatments, or new doses of current therapies. The health and safety of all children participating in clinical trials are closely monitored.

To take advantage of these newer treatments, children with cancer should be treated at a specialized cancer center. Doctors at these centers have extensive experience in treating children with cancer and have access to the latest research. A doctor who specializes in treating children with cancer is called a pediatric hematologist-oncologist. If a pediatric cancer center is not nearby, general cancer centers sometimes have pediatric specialists who are able to be part of your child’s care.

Treatment overview

In many cases, a team of doctors works with a child and the family to provide care; this is called a multidisciplinary team. Pediatric cancer centers often have extra support services for children and their families, such as child life specialists, dietitians, physical and occupational therapists, social workers, and counselors. Special activities and programs to help your child and family cope may also be available.

Descriptions of the most common treatment options for childhood cancer are listed below. Treatment options and recommendations depend on several factors, including the type and stage of cancer, possible side effects, and the patient’s preferences and overall health. Your child’s care plan may also include treatment for symptoms and side effects, an important part of cancer care. Take time to learn about all of your child’s treatment options and be sure to ask questions about things that are unclear. Talk with your child’s doctor about the goals of each treatment and what your child can expect while receiving the treatment. Learn more about making treatment decisions.

Surgery

Surgery is the removal of the tumor, either cancerous or noncancerous, and some surrounding healthy tissue during an operation. Many children with a tumor will need surgery at some point as a part of their treatment. A surgical oncologist is a doctor who specializes in treating a tumor using surgery.

The goal of surgery is to remove the entire tumor and the margin (tissue around the tumor), leaving a negative margin, meaning no cancer in the healthy tissue. For most childhood tumors, there are microscopic tumor cells left after surgery. Doctors are then likely to recommend chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or other treatments.

Side effects of surgery depend on the location and type of the tumor and whether it has metastasized.

Before surgery, talk with your child’s health care team about the possible side effects from the specific surgery you will have.  Learn more about the basics of cancer surgery.

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to destroy cancer cells, usually by ending the cancer cells’ ability to grow and divide. Chemotherapy is given by a pediatric hematologist-oncologist, a doctor who specializes in treating cancer in children with medication.

Systemic chemotherapy gets into the bloodstream to reach cancer cells throughout the body. Common ways to give chemotherapy include an intravenous (IV) tube placed into a vein, muscle, spinal fluid or under the skin using a needle, or in a pill or capsule that is swallowed orally.

A chemotherapy regimen, or schedule, usually consists of a specific number of cycles given over a set period of time. A patient may receive 1 drug at a time or combinations of different drugs given at the same time.

The side effects of chemotherapy depend on the individual and the drug and dose used, but they can include fatigue, risk of infection, nausea and vomiting, hair loss, loss of appetite, and diarrhea. These side effects usually go away after treatment is finished.

Learn more about the basics of chemotherapy and preparing for treatment. The medications used to treat cancer are continually being evaluated. Talking with your child’s doctor is often the best way to learn about the medications prescribed for your child, their purpose, and their potential side effects or interactions with other medications. Learn more about your child’s prescriptions by using searchable drug databases.

Radiation therapy

Radiation therapy is the use of high-energy x-rays or other particles such as photons to destroy cancer cells. A doctor who specializes in giving radiation therapy to treat cancer is called a radiation oncologist. Because healthy organs and tissues in the radiation field are at risk for damage and second cancers, especially in young children, doctors avoid using radiation therapy whenever possible.

The most common type of radiation treatment is called external-beam radiation therapy, which is radiation given from a machine outside the body. When radiation treatment is given using implants, it is called internal radiation therapy or brachytherapy.

A radiation therapy regimen, or schedule, usually consists of a specific number of treatments given over a set period of time.

Side effects from radiation therapy may include fatigue, mild skin reactions, upset stomach, and loose bowel movements. Most side effects go away soon after treatment is finished. Learn more about the basics of radiation therapy.

Immunotherapy

Immunotherapy, also called biologic therapy, is designed to boost the body’s natural defenses to fight the cancer. It uses materials made either by the body or in a laboratory to improve, target, or restore immune system function. Examples of immunotherapy include cancer vaccines, monoclonal antibodies, and interferons.

Different types of immunotherapy can cause different side effects. Talk with your child’s doctor about possible side effects for the immunotherapy recommended. Learn more about the basics of immunotherapy.

Stem cell transplantation/bone marrow transplantation

A stem cell transplant is a medical procedure in which bone marrow that contains cancer is replaced by highly specialized cells, called hematopoietic stem cells that develop into healthy bone marrow. Hematopoietic stem cells are blood-forming cells found both in the bloodstream and in the bone marrow. Today, this procedure is more commonly called a stem cell transplant, rather than bone marrow transplant, because it is the stem cells in the blood that are typically being transplanted, not the actual bone marrow tissue.

Before recommending transplantation, doctors will talk with the patient and family about the risks of this treatment and consider several other factors, such as the type of cancer, results of any previous treatment, and patient’s age and general health.

There are 2 types of stem cell transplantation depending on the source of the replacement blood stem cells: allogeneic (ALLO) and autologous (AUTO). ALLO uses donated stem cells, while AUTO uses the patient’s own stem cells. In both types, the goal is to destroy all of the cancer cells in the marrow, blood, and other parts of the body using high doses of chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy and then allow replacement blood stem cells to create healthy bone marrow.

Side effects depend on the type of transplant, your general health, and other factors. Learn more about the basics of stem cell and bone marrow transplantation.

Getting care for symptoms and side effects

Cancer and its treatment often cause side effects. In addition to treatments intended to slow, stop, or eliminate the cancer, an important part of cancer care is relieving a person’s symptoms and side effects. This approach is called palliative or supportive care, and it includes taking care of the patient’s and family’s physical, emotional, and social needs.

Palliative care is any treatment that focuses on reducing symptoms, improving quality of life, and supporting patients and their families. Any person, regardless of age or type and stage of cancer, may receive palliative care. It works best when palliative care is started as early as needed in the cancer treatment process. People often receive treatment for the cancer and at the same time that they treatment to ease side effects. In fact, patients who receive both often have less severe symptoms, better quality of life, and report they are more satisfied with treatment.

Palliative treatments vary widely and often include medication, nutritional changes, relaxation techniques, emotional support, and other therapies. Your child may also receive palliative treatments similar to those meant to eliminate the cancer, such as chemotherapy, surgery, or radiation therapy. Talk with your child’s doctor about the goals of each treatment in the treatment plan.

Before treatment begins, talk with your child’s health care team about the possible side effects of the specific treatment plan and palliative care options. During and after treatment, be sure to tell your child’s doctor or another health care team member if your child is experiencing a problem so it can be addressed as quickly as possible. Learn more about palliative care.    

Remission and the chance of recurrence

A remission is when cancer cannot be detected in the body and there are no symptoms. This may also be called having “no evidence of disease” or NED. 

A remission may be temporary or permanent. This uncertainty causes many people to worry that the cancer will come back. While many remissions are permanent, it’s important to talk with your child’s doctor about the possibility of the cancer returning. Understanding the risk of recurrence and the treatment options may help patients and their families feel more prepared if the cancer does return. Learn more about coping with the fear of recurrence

If the cancer does return after the original treatment, it is called recurrent disease. It may come back in the same place (called a local recurrence), nearby (regional recurrence), or in another place in the body (distant recurrence).

When this occurs, a new cycle of testing will begin again to learn as much as possible about the recurrence. After this testing is done, your child’s doctor will talk with you about treatment options. Often the treatment plan will include the treatments described above such as surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy, but they may be used in a different combination or given on a different schedule. Your child’s doctor may suggest clinical trials that are studying new ways to treat this type of recurrent cancer. Whichever treatment plan you choose, palliative care will be important for relieving symptoms and side effects.

Patients and their families with recurrent cancer often experience emotions such as disbelief or fear. Families are encouraged to talk with their child’s health care team about these feelings and ask about support services to help them cope. Learn more about dealing with cancer recurrence.

If treatment doesn’t work

Although treatment is successful for the majority of children with cancer, sometimes it is not. If a child’s cancer cannot be cured or controlled, this is called advanced or terminal cancer. This diagnosis is stressful, and advanced cancer may be difficult to discuss. However, it is important to have open and honest conversations with your child’s doctor and health care team to express your family’s feelings, preferences, and concerns. The health care team is there to help, and many team members have special skills, experience, and knowledge to support patients and their families.

Hospice care is a type of palliative care for people who are expected to live less than 6 months. It is designed to provide the best possible quality of life for people who are near the end of life. Parents and guardians are encouraged to talk with the health care team about hospice options, which include hospice care at home, a special hospice center, or other health care locations. Nursing care and special equipment can make staying at home a workable option for many families. Some children may be happier if they can arrange to attend school part-time or keep up other activities and social connections. The child’s health care team can help parents or guardians decide on an appropriate level of activity. Making sure a child is physically comfortable and free from pain is an extremely important part of end-of-life care. Learn more about caring for a terminally ill child and advanced cancer care planning.

The death of a child is an enormous tragedy, and families may need support to help them cope with the loss. Pediatric cancer centers often have professional staff and support groups to help with the process of grieving. Learn more on grieving the loss of a child.

The next section in this guide is About Clinical Trials and it offers more information about research studies that are focused on finding better ways to care for people with cancer. You may use the menu to choose a different section to read in this guide.