Key Points for This Section
- The goal of supportive care is to improve the quality of life for young cancer patients and their families.
- Cancer in children is different from cancer in adults.
- Children of different ages need different treatment and support.
- A child's circle of family and friends may be larger than it usually is for adults.
- Most decisions about care will be made by the child's parents or guardians.
Note: Information about physical adjustment to treatment, problems with physical and cognitive development, and life after cancer treatment will be added to this summary in the future.
Most children with cancer can be cured. However, cancer treatment for young patients can cause unwanted side effects and other problems during and after treatment. Early treatment of cancer symptoms and the side effects of therapy helps patients feel better, stay stronger, and cope with life after cancer. Supportive care improves the patient's physical, psychological, social, and spiritual quality of life.
Supportive care is given to children of all ages, including infants, children, adolescents, and young adults.
Cancer in children and young adults is different from cancer that develops later in life. Childhood cancers usually do not act like adult cancers and are not treated the same way:
In general, treatments for childhood cancer use higher doses of chemotherapy and radiation than is used for adults. These treatments may also be given over a shorter amount of time than in adults. This is because children can receive more intense treatment (higher doses given over a shorter time) than adults can, before serious side effects occur.
- Side effects
Some of the unwanted side effects of cancer treatments cause more harm to children than they do to adults. This is because children's bodies are still growing and developing, so cancer and its treatment are more likely to affect developing organs.
Side effects of chemotherapy and radiation therapy may happen right away or weeks or years after treatment. Cancer treatment may also affect a child's growth or cause a second cancer to form. Problems that appear weeks or years after treatment are called late effects. Because of possible late effects, childhood cancer survivors need life-long follow-up. (See the PDQ summary on Late Effects of Treatment for Childhood Cancer for more information).
- Supportive care
The types of supportive care given to children may be different from those used for adults. For example, certain medicines used to control symptoms in adults may not be safe for children.
The treatments and supportive care will be different for different age groups and will change as the child grows and develops. For some cancers, the prognosis (chance of recovery) and risk of late effects depend partly on the age of the child at the time of diagnosis or treatment. See CureSearch for more information about treatment and support for different age groups.
Even with a diagnosis of cancer, the child will still be going to school, spending time with friends and family, and enjoying many activities that were a part of life before cancer. The child's circle of family and friends may be large. In addition to parents, brothers, and sisters, many others may be closely involved in the child's everyday life. This includes grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, teachers, schoolmates, and friends. Everyone in a child's circle of family and friends are affected by the child's cancer diagnosis and treatment, and possible side effects of treatment.
Children under the age of 18 don't have the legal right to make their own decisions about treatment. Their parents or guardians legally make these decisions for them. Decisions about treatment may be difficult because of this. There are ethical concerns about informed consent (the process of giving information about possible treatments and their risks and benefits, before treatment decisions are made). In the treatment of children, parents are informed and decide whether to give permission for the treatment. Whenever possible, it is best that the child be involved and agrees with decisions about treatment.