Childhood Cancer – How is it Different from Adult Cancer?

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Evidence Based - Facts Checked

Childhood cancer refers to the cancer in the age group of 0 to 19 years. The prevalence of childhood cancer is quite less as compared to the adult cancer. Apart from it, there are quite a lot of other differences between a childhood cancer and adult cancer which are discussed below:-

1. Timing of Genetic Mutation

In adults, a mutation that leads to cancer accumulates over 10-15 years and then develops into cancers.

However, in childhood cancers, simple karyotypes and genetic mutations occur during fetal development, leading to deleterious mutation, cell cycle arrest, and organ differentiation defect that cause most pediatric cancer.

2. Incidences of Cancer

Various studies have shown that genetic mutation incidences are less in childhood cancers than in adult cancers.1R;, R. Z. (2018, August). 'Genomics of adult and pediatric solid tumors' Source

3. Causes of Cancer

 Unlike adult cancers, childhood cancers are not related to lifestyle and environmental risk factors like occupational exposures, ultraviolet radiation, etc.

Childhood cancers are caused due to exposure to intrinsic and environmental factors while in the mother’s womb or after birth2A. (n.d.). 'What Are the Differences Between Cancers in Adults and Children?' Source.

4. Cancer Type

80-90 % of adult cancers are carcinomas derived from epithelial cells (cells that line the organs’ surface) of the solid organs like lung, prostate, breast, etc.

In contrast, children usually have cancers like leukemia, lymphomas, sarcomas, and brain cancers, which arise from bone marrow, lymph nodes, bone, and muscle, unlike the epithelial cells in adults.

This difference helps oncologists analyze the likely progress of cancer in the patient, thereby facilitate in devising an efficient treatment plan.

5. Time to Development of Cancer

The latency period i.e., the time from initiation to cancer development in adults, is relatively long for carcinomas than pediatric tumors. In adults, cancer develops around 10-30 years after genetic mutation or exposure to a carcinogen.

Childhood cancers have a latency period much less than adult cancers, commonly between 1-10 years before the obvious cancer symptoms appear.

6. Prognosis

Quick Note - Prognosis is a term used to predict the ‘expected progress of the disease’ which shall include the analysis of signs and symptoms, quality of life, survival rate, and associated health issues.

The overall prognosis depends on the type of cancer and its current stage.

For the same cancer, the prognosis in pediatric patients is much better than in adults.

This is due to the significant differences in the molecular pathology, cellular and genetic features of cancer in adults and children, leading to better response to treatment and better overall survival in pediatric patients3JV;, H. M. (2003). 'Childhood Cancer Survivorship: Improving Care and Quality of Life.' Source.

7. Survival Rate

Children have better survival due to better response to chemotherapy and radiotherapy

Let’s understand this, with the help of an example

The ‘overall survival rate’ is a parameter used to study the number of individuals who remain alive for five years after their diagnosis or treatment starts.

For example, Acute lymphoid leukemia has a 5-year overall survival rate of about 80-90 percent in children; however, the same cancer has a much lower 5-year survival rate in adults (about 20-30 percent)4Adamson, P. C. (2015). 'Improving the outcome for children with cancer: Development of targeted new agents.' Source.

8. Long Term Side-Effects

Long term side effects are more of a concern in childhood cancers than in adult cancers because of two reasons

  • Firstly children suffering from cancer receive treatment during their vulnerable period of growth and development, and therefore the therapy may affect the same.
  • Also, children cured of cancer will live longer and will have a greater tendency to develop long-term side effects due to chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Some of these include growth retardation, bony deformities, hormonal disturbances, fertility issues, second malignancy, etc. Therefore, a long term follow up shall be required in case of childhood cancer

9. Response to Treatment

Pediatric cancers are more sensitive to chemo as compared to adult cancer. For this reason, chemotherapy is preferred in most childhood cancer treatments.

Why does Chemotherapy Respond Better in Childhood Cancers than in Adults?

Most childhood cancers are blastoma, i.e., cancer that develops in a child’s developing cells (precursor cell). The precursor cell or the developing cell (a stem cell type), are usually found in large numbers in children compared to adults as children have a developing body compared to the adult’s already developed body.

The clinical experiences of various oncologists dealing with cancer treatment suggest that childhood cancers, especially those with “blastoma” like pathological features, are more sensitive to chemotherapy and radiotherapy than most adult carcinoma5Pizzo, P. A., Poplack, D. G., Helman, L. J., Blaney, S. M., Adamson, P. C. (2011). Principles and Practice of Pediatric Oncology. United States: Wolters Kluwer/Lippincott Williams &  Wilkins Health.

Difference Between Child and Adult Cancer

This content is medically reviewed by Dr. Umang Singal and written by Dr. Isha Jaiswal

Last Medical Review Date - 11th December 2020


  1. 1
    R;, R. Z. (2018, August). Genomics of adult and pediatric solid tumors. Retrieved December 10, 2020, from
  2. 2
    A. (n.d.). What Are the Differences Between Cancers in Adults and Children? Retrieved December 10, 2020, from
  3. 3
    JV;, H. M. (2003). Childhood Cancer Survivorship: Improving Care and Quality of Life. Retrieved December 10, 2020, from
  4. 4
    Adamson, P. C. (2015). Improving the outcome for children with cancer: Development of targeted new agents. Retrieved December 10, 2020, from
  5. 5
    Pizzo, P. A., Poplack, D. G., Helman, L. J., Blaney, S. M., Adamson, P. C. (2011). Principles and Practice of Pediatric Oncology. United States: Wolters Kluwer/Lippincott Williams &  Wilkins Health

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This content is only for educational purpose and should not be considered as a substitute for your Physician's/Doctor's clinical judgement

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