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Understanding Childhood Cancers and How Genetics Could be Involved

Due to advances in research and collaborative studies, the National Cancer Institute reports that the long-term survival for children with cancer has increased from less than 10% to almost 80% in the past 50 years.

In general, cancer in children and adolescents is rare, with particular cancers occurring more often:

  • leukemia
  • lymphoma
  • brain and central nervous system tumor
  • tumors of developing tissues such as neuroblastoma, bone and soft tissue sarcomas
  • other cancers

While most cancers in children occur by chance, a small portion can be linked to an inherited genetic syndrome. One study of 1,100 pediatric cancer patients evaluated by genetic specialists confirmed an inherited cancer susceptibility syndrome in 3.9% and a suspected syndrome in another 3.3%*.

Though your child may already be seeing a number of specialists, referral to a geneticist or a genetic counselor can be another important piece which may provide a better understanding of why your child developed cancer and what this diagnosis means for siblings and other family members.

If other family members have been diagnosed with cancers, this could indicate an inherited syndrome that increases risks for cancer. Some of the pediatric cancers that may suggest an inherited predisposition to cancer and warrant a referral to a genetics clinic include:

  • medullary thyroid cancer
  • adrenal cortical carcinoma
  • retinoblastoma
  • sarcoma

Physicians and genetic counselors in the Cancer Genetics Clinic at the University of Michigan meet with patients and families to review your family history and determine if genetic testing may help clarify risks for additional cancers in the family. Targeted screenings and other risk reduction efforts can be taken in an effort to prevent cancer in the future.  The Cancer Genetics Clinic welcomes patients of all ages who may have questions about the risk of a genetic predisposition in their family.

Continue learning about cancer and genetic risk

*(Merks et al, Am J Med Genet. 2005 Apr 15; 134A(2):132-43)