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What is childhood cancer?

Every year, approximately 600 children in the Netherlands are diagnosed with cancer. What causes this disease? Why do some children get cancer and others do not? And how does the disease in children differ from that in adults?

What causes cancer?
There are many different types of cancer, but they all have one thing in common: cells that divide uncontrollably.

Our body consists of billions of cells, in different shapes with different functions. They are the building blocks of our body. New cells are constantly produced while old, damaged cells are broken down. The speed at which this process occurs differs per type of cell; this information is stored in the nucleus of the cell.

DNA is stored in the nucleus of each and every cell. That is your genetic code. This code tells the cell how to behave.

This genetic code has changed in cancer cells, causing them to behave abnormally. The genes that normally control cell division no longer function properly, enabling cancer cells to continue to grow and divide. In most forms of cancer, this causes a lump of 'faulty' cells to develop. We call that lump a tumor. In some forms, such as leukemia, the cancer cells circulate in the blood.

Cancer is usually named after the type of cell or tissue in which it originates. Cells from this first tumor can start migrating, thus spreading the cancer to other parts of the body. This is called a metastasis.

Because cancer cells grow quickly and divide multiple times, they often take up a lot of space. Normal structures, such as blood vessels or nerve cells, can be squished and compressed as a result, disrupting important processes in the body.

Causes of cancer in children
The 'mistakes' in the cell's genetic code that lead to cancer in children often occur spontaneously. Contrary to cancer in adults, lifestyle and environment usually do not figure in this respect. And only a small number of childhood cancers are hereditary.

Difference between cancer in children and in adults

  • Forms of cancer: Cancer in children often differs from cancer in adults. For example, acute lymphocytic leukemia occurs mainly in children and chronic lymphocytic leukemia in adults.
  • Cause: Factors such as lifestyle and environment figure much less in children than in adults. Furthermore, only a few forms of childhood cancer are hereditary.
  • Treatment: Childhood cancer generally responds better to treatment than cancer in adults. A child's body is often better able to handle the treatment. Children have fewer underlying illnesses and their bodies recover faster.
  • Late effects: Because children are still developing, there is more concern about the late effects of treatment. The Princess Máxima Center has a separate outpatient clinic for survivors of childhood cancer where special attention is paid to late effects.
  • Centralized care: Since 2018, all children with cancer in the Netherlands are treated in one national pediatric oncology center: the Princess Máxima Center in Utrecht.