A medical expert shares the red flags of childhood cancer.

The thought that your child may one day be diagnosed with a life-threatening illness is terrifying; but when it comes to cancer it’s important to know the facts.

Rates of childhood cancer in Australia are, thankfully, very low. While the gut-wrenching stories we read online may make it feel like cancer is everywhere, according to Professor Jon Emery, the Medical Advisor for Cancer Council Australia, “there are only 500 children under 10 diagnosed with cancer every year” in our country. Given 130,470 new cases of cancer will be diagnosed in Australia this year, the rate of childhood cancers is comparably very slim.

The other comforting news is that thanks to improvements in treatment, of the children who are diagnosed every year, 85 per cent have an outlook of long-term survival.

If you’re a worried parent, know that the symptoms Professor Emery lists below are not uncommon; and often have a far less serious explanation than cancer. With this in mind, parents should be looking for the duration and severity of their child’s symptoms – if they creep up slowly and are persistent for longer than a week or two, Professor Emery advises you take your child to a GP.

These are the red flags to look out for. If your child experiences these for a prolonged period, please consult a healthcare professional.

Bruising and bleeding

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This could include your child bruising easier than normal; while all children will sport an unexplained bruise from time to time, it's important to keep an eye on if you notice a change.

"They're called petechiae bruises," Professor Emery tells Mamamia. "They look speckled, like pinpoint bruises and can be a symptom of blood clotting not working so well, and can be an important thing to look out for in case of leukemia."


If your child has been "really off colour for a couple of weeks", Professor Emery says you should consult a physician. Signs of anaemia - where a child may be pale, feeling fatigued and out of breath - can be a red flag for something more serious.

Persistent limp

Persistent and unexplained pain in one limb is something parents should look out for in case of bone cancer, Professor Emery says.


"This is of course when they haven't had a fall or anything... if a child is waking up at night with pain, it could indicate a bone tumour.

"Growing pains are generally in both legs, so are generally nothing to worry about. If it’s in one leg, or one arm, then that's more significant."

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Headaches and fever

"These are very common symptoms in children," Professor Emery says, and therefore should not be met with panic. However, "if it is a persistent fever, even after the child has seen their doctor," then parents should follow up in proceeding weeks.

Unexplained weight loss and nagging headaches are other red flags.

"Persistent and worsening headaches, especially if they’re linked with the child vomiting particularly in the morning, is a marker of a potential brain tumour."

Persistent lump

While glands will swell as a response to a viral infection, Professor Emery says enlarged glands should be checked if they persist over time.

"If are reasonably large, say more than one or two centimetres, and [the child] has several of them it’s worth just checking out - it can be a response to a viral infection, but could also be lymphoma."

Eye abnormalities

Taylor Treadwell's life was saved after his mother noticed this photo looked peculiar. (Image: Twitter)

This is trickier to pinpoint now that many have moved away from flash photography, Professor Emery says, but an absence of a red reflex in a child's eye "significant indicator of a tumour at the back of the eye".

If you take a photo of your child where one eye reflex is red, and the other is white, that’s definitely something to check out.

If your child also adopts an unusual squint - one that they've never had before - that could indicate something is awry, also.

If you're worried about your child's health, please visit your local GP. Additional resources are also available on the Cancer Council website.