Facts

Babies and Cancer [Q&A]

by Erin Breese, M.D.
August 11, 2015

Anyone can get cancer — even babies. Dr. Erin Breese, a St. Baldrick’s Fellow studying infant leukemia, explains the signs, symptoms and treatment of babies with cancer, and how research is helping pinpoint better therapies so babies with cancer can grow up to live long, healthy lives.

a baby's feet

Can babies get cancer?

Unfortunately, cancer can occur at any age including during infancy. According to recent statistics, roughly 23 of every 100,000 babies are diagnosed with cancer each year.

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What kinds of cancer can babies get?

The most common kinds of cancer in infants include leukemia, brain tumors, neuroblastoma, and retinoblastoma.

What are the signs of cancer in babies?

Babies with cancer can have many different symptoms, depending on what type of cancer it is. Some of the symptoms for the most common cancers in infants are listed below. However, many of the symptoms listed can occur during the first year of life for many other reasons besides cancer.

Leukemia:

  • Paleness
  • Bleeding or bruising
  • Fevers
  • Tiredness
  • Loss of appetite

Brain tumors:

  • Tiredness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Persistent or recurrent vomiting
  • Delayed development

Neuroblastoma:

  • Abdominal mass
  • Horner’s syndrome (where one side of the face has a small pupil and a droopy eyelid, with a lack of sweating and facial flushing)
  • Weakness in the legs and feet
  • Bruising around or under the eyes
  • Bluish-red bumps on the skin

Retinoblastoma

  • Leukocoria (a white reflection from the retina of the eye)
  • Strabismus (a misalignment of the eyes)

How do I know if my baby has cancer?

In general, parents are great at knowing when something does not seem right with their child.

Parents should always feel free to contact their pediatrician with any concerns. The pediatrician will likely perform a thorough physical exam and possibly laboratories studies to investigate your concern. If they suspect cancer, the pediatrician will refer your child to a pediatric oncologist who specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer in children.

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What is treatment like for babies with cancer?

The treatment for cancer in infants varies significantly depending on the type of cancer. Some cancers can be cured with surgery or radiation. Other cancers may require chemotherapy, which are medications used to treat cancer. It is also possible that a child may require some combination of these therapies.

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In your experience, are babies more difficult to treat than older kids?

Babies are somewhat more difficult to treat than older kids.

Babies metabolize drugs differently, so the doses of chemotherapy have to be adjusted accordingly. Babies can also be very sensitive to some of the side effects of these medications.

Additionally, because a baby’s immune system has not fully developed, they are at an increased risk of infections while receiving chemotherapy. Often times babies end up needing to be in the hospital for a long time so they can be closely watched and kept safe during periods of intensive chemotherapy.

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How do you help make infants more comfortable during treatment?

It is very important to pay close attention to infants for signs and symptoms of pain, discomfort, or distress since they are not able to tell us how they are feeling. We try to minimize any pain and use pain medication as appropriate. We also encourage families to hold, cuddle, and play with their babies as much as possible.

Do you have any advice for parents of babies with cancer?

Ask questions. Advocate for your child. Help the medical providers taking care of your baby know how your baby has been feeling. You know your child the best and know when something is bothering them.

Most importantly, although at times the medical environment makes this difficult, continue to love, cuddle, hold, and play with your baby as much as possible. These things are so important for their physical and emotional development.

What’s are the most challenging and rewarding aspects of treating babies with cancer?

The most challenging aspect of treating babies is having to tell parents that their beautiful, perfect new baby has cancer, and that we are going to have to give them drugs that will make them very sick in order for them to get better.

However, the most rewarding aspect is seeing these same babies complete therapy and grow up!

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How is research helping babies with cancer?

While significant strides have been made over the years in our ability to treat children with cancer, we still have a long way to go.

Scientists throughout the world are investigating why children get cancer, are trying to understand the biology of the different types of cancer seen in infants, and are working to use this information to design better treatment strategies to improve our ability to cure patients.

With parents’ consent, an infant with cancer could participate in a clinical trial or a research study. In these trials, pediatric oncologists and scientists are able to provide the most cutting edge therapies and to learn from each and every patient.

We are grateful to organizations such as the St. Baldrick’s Foundation who provide funding critical to supporting these efforts.

You can help babies with cancer grow up to live long, healthy lives. Fund childhood cancer research today.

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