Lung Cancer in Children: 7 Facts To Know | MyLungCancerTeam

Connect with others who understand.

sign up Log in
Resources
About MyLungCancerTeam
Powered By

Lung Cancer in Children: 7 Facts To Know

Medically reviewed by Leonora Valdez, M.D.
Written by Aminah Wali, Ph.D.
Posted on May 15, 2024

Lung cancer is usually found in older adults, but did you know it can also occur in children? Although lung cancer is much rarer in children and teenagers than in adults, young people can still be diagnosed with what’s called pediatric lung cancer. This type of cancer comes with special challenges and usually needs different treatment approaches than those used for adults.

If your child or loved one has been diagnosed with lung cancer, it can be upsetting and unexpected. You may have a lot of questions about the future. This article can help you understand important facts about pediatric lung cancer. By starting your education here, you can feel better prepared to support your child or loved one through this journey.

1. Pediatric Lung Cancer Is Rare

Childhood cancer is a very real concern for many families, as thousands of children in the United States are diagnosed with cancer each year. Among childhood cancers, however, lung cancer is very rare. About 0.2 percent of cancers in children are lung cancer, meaning that there are only a few cases a year in the U.S.

Because pediatric lung cancer is so uncommon, there are very few studies on it. Although there’s still a lot we don’t know, your child’s health care provider can help you find educational resources and where to get support.

2. There Are Many Types of Pediatric Lung Cancer

Many types of cancer can affect the lungs. Non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC), one of the main categories of lung cancer, can develop in children. Although NSCLC is the most common type of lung cancer overall, it’s less common in children compared to adults. Children can also develop small cell lung cancer, although this is rare.

The main lung cancer types can be further broken down into smaller categories — or subtypes — based on how the cancer cells look under a microscope. Lung tumors that most commonly affect children include:

  • Pleuropulmonary blastoma
  • Carcinoid tumors
  • Adenocarcinoma
  • Squamous cell carcinoma
  • Neuroendocrine tumor
  • Mucoepidermoid carcinoma
  • Atypical carcinoma

Although the different lung cancer subtypes can affect both children and adults, children are more commonly diagnosed with lung cancer tumor types that rarely occur in adults.

3. Doctors Don't Always Know What Causes Pediatric Lung Cancer

It’s not always clear why some children develop lung cancer. The diagnosis is so rare that it’s hard for researchers to understand all of the possible causes. In some cases, however, the disease is linked to specific factors that can increase the risk of lung cancer.

Genetics

Genes are sections of our DNA that provide the instructions for our bodies to function. If certain mutations — or changes — happen in our genes, it can destroy the instructions and prevent processes in our bodies from working properly. Some gene mutations can be passed down from parents to their children.

If someone inherits certain gene mutations, it can increase their risk of developing lung cancer at a younger age. Some children with lung cancer may have a type of mutation called an ALK rearrangement. This mutation — which can be found in other types of cancers as well — can cause cells to divide at the wrong time and place, forming tumors. Additionally, mutations in a gene called DICER1 can be found in some types of childhood lung cancers.

History of Cancer

Certain cancer treatments can lead to a higher risk of another cancer later in life. Very young children treated for cancer may be more likely to develop lung cancer as adolescents. In addition to a personal history of cancer, children with a family history of cancer may also be more likely to get lung cancer.

Environmental Exposure

There are also environmental factors that can increase the risk of lung cancer. Children exposed to secondhand smoke from parents or caregivers may develop lung cancer while they’re still young. Exposure to radon — a natural gas — or asbestos — a material used in construction and landscaping — are also risk factors for lung cancer.

4. Pediatric Lung Cancer Symptoms Can Look Like a Lung Infection

Lung tumors make it harder for the lungs to work properly. This can lead to breathing problems like wheezing or shortness of breath. Lung cancer may also cause your child to have other types of symptoms, including:

  • Hoarseness
  • Coughing a lot
  • Poor appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Coughing up blood
  • Chest pain
  • General symptoms of illness, like fever and vomiting

Some pediatric lung cancer symptoms may cause a health care provider to think your child has a lung infection like bronchitis. However, symptoms of lung cancer don’t improve after treatment with antibiotics and require further investigation.

5. Pediatric Lung Cancer Is Diagnosed With Imaging Tests and Biopsies

If your child has concerning symptoms, an oncologist (cancer specialist) may use an imaging test to look for cancer cells in the lungs or other areas of the body. Different imaging techniques that might be used to diagnose lung cancer include:

  • CT scan
  • Positron emission tomography, or a PET scan
  • Chest X-ray

If the imaging test detects lung cancer, a doctor may perform a procedure called a bronchoscopy to collect a tissue sample (or biopsy) from the lungs. The doctor will look at the cells from the biopsy sample under a microscope to better understand what type of cancer your child has.

6. There Are Several Treatment Options for Pediatric Lung Cancer

There are different treatment options for children with lung cancer. The cancer treatment that’s best for each child depends on the type of cancer and how advanced the disease is.

Surgery

If lung cancer is diagnosed in the early stages of the disease, it means the tumor is only in the lungs. In these cases, surgery to remove the tumor may be the recommended treatment.

There are different types of surgery, depending on where the tumor cells are located.

Although surgery can be effective, it may be difficult to fully remove all the cancer cells. Additionally, some children are diagnosed with metastatic lung cancer, meaning the cancer cells have spread to the lymph nodes or other parts of the body. Metastatic lung cancer would need other types of treatment to eliminate the cancer cells.

Radiation

Radiation — also called radiation therapy or radiotherapy — is a common cancer treatment that uses high-energy X-rays to shrink tumors. Your child’s doctor may prescribe radiation by itself or in addition to other treatments.

Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy is a type of cancer treatment that uses different drugs that can kill quickly dividing cells. Cancer cells — which divide much more quickly than most normal cells in the body — are especially sensitive to chemotherapy. Children with advanced lung cancer are likely to get chemotherapy because this type of treatment can kill cancer cells throughout the body.

Targeted Therapy

Some newer therapies are made to specifically affect one type of protein. These are known as targeted therapies, and they often have fewer side effects than chemotherapy or radiation. Targeted therapies may be given to children with lung cancer caused by specific gene mutations.

7. The Outlook for Pediatric Lung Cancer Depends on the Cancer Type

Because this condition is so rare, it’s hard to have a good understanding of the overall prognosis (outlook) for lung cancer in children. The largest study of lung cancer in children found that, between the years 2000 and 2019, the 15-year survival rate was 73.9 percent. This means that nearly three-quarters of children with lung cancer were still alive 15 years after diagnosis.

It’s important to note that your child’s prognosis will depend a lot on what type of lung cancer they have. Your child’s cancer care team will come up with a personalized care plan to achieve the best possible outcome for your child.

Although the future may be uncertain, your family doesn’t have to go on this journey alone. By using resources like MyLungCancerTeam to find a community, you can find support and guidance to help navigate the challenges ahead.

Talk With Others Who Understand

MyLungCancerTeam is the social support network for people with lung cancer and their loved ones. On MyLungCancerTeam, more than 12,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with lung cancer.

Do you have a child with lung cancer? Do you have more questions about lung cancer in children? Share your insights in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on your Activities page.

Posted on May 15, 2024
All updates must be accompanied by text or a picture.

We'd love to hear from you! Please share your name and email to post and read comments.

You'll also get the latest articles directly to your inbox.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.
Leonora Valdez, M.D. received her medical degree from the Autonomous University of Guadalajara before pursuing a fellowship in internal medicine and subsequently in medical oncology at the National Cancer Institute. Learn more about her here.
Aminah Wali, Ph.D. received her doctorate in genetics and molecular biology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Learn more about her here.

Related Articles

If you’ve recently been diagnosed with a Pancoast tumor, you may be wondering what this means for...

Pancoast Tumors: 6 Facts About Cancer in the Top of the Lung

If you’ve recently been diagnosed with a Pancoast tumor, you may be wondering what this means for...
Did you know that a lung abscess can look like lung cancer on an X-ray? Lung abscesses come from ...

Lung Abscess vs. Lung Cancer: How Do Doctors Tell the Difference?

Did you know that a lung abscess can look like lung cancer on an X-ray? Lung abscesses come from ...
Did you know lung cancers can spread beyond the chest? The term “metastasis” refers to cancer tha...

When Lung Cancer Spreads to the Adrenal Glands: What To Expect

Did you know lung cancers can spread beyond the chest? The term “metastasis” refers to cancer tha...
Lung cancer and hypertension (high blood pressure) can be related conditions for some people. If ...

Can Lung Cancer Cause High Blood Pressure? 6 Facts To Know

Lung cancer and hypertension (high blood pressure) can be related conditions for some people. If ...
Emphysema is a form of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). It shares certain characteri...

Emphysema vs. Lung Cancer: 3 Differences and 3 Similarities

Emphysema is a form of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). It shares certain characteri...
Thanks to advances in modern medicine, doctors are learning more about lung cancer every day. The...

EGFR-Positive Lung Cancer: 5 Facts To Know

Thanks to advances in modern medicine, doctors are learning more about lung cancer every day. The...

Recent Articles

MyHealthTeam does not provide health services, and if you need help, we’d strongly encourage you ...

Crisis Resources

MyHealthTeam does not provide health services, and if you need help, we’d strongly encourage you ...
Loss of appetite is a common symptom of living with lung cancer, and it can also be a side effect...

Loss of Appetite With Lung Cancer: 13 Tips To Improve Eating

Loss of appetite is a common symptom of living with lung cancer, and it can also be a side effect...
Choosing the right hospital for lung cancer treatment is one of the most critical decisions you c...

Best Hospitals for Lung Cancer Treatment: 7 Features To Look For

Choosing the right hospital for lung cancer treatment is one of the most critical decisions you c...
If you’re an older adult with lung cancer, you might have specific needs related to aging. It’s i...

8 Facts About Lung Cancer in Older Adults: Treatment Options, Prognosis, and More

If you’re an older adult with lung cancer, you might have specific needs related to aging. It’s i...
Lung cancer rates differ, depending on where you live. These differences are based on a number of...

What Countries Have the Highest and Lowest Lung Cancer Rates?

Lung cancer rates differ, depending on where you live. These differences are based on a number of...
Doctors and scientists are constantly finding new and better ways to treat lung cancer. In the pa...

New Lung Cancer Treatments: 8 Advancements in Research

Doctors and scientists are constantly finding new and better ways to treat lung cancer. In the pa...
MyLungCancerTeam My lung cancer Team

Thank you for subscribing!

Become a member to get even more:

sign up for free

close