Angie's LIST Guide to
Pediatric Oncology

Childhood cancer can be devastating, so it’s important to get a prompt diagnosis so that treatment can begin quickly. It is crucial that you find the right specialist in the field of pediatric oncology.


Photo collage of babies and doctors.
Children often are diagnosed with illnesses and conditions that affect adults, but because of their special needs, they are often referred to pediatric specialists. Specialists in all areas can provide treatment plans to improve health and quality of life.

Pediatric cancer treatment

This specialty focuses on diagnosing and treating childhood cancer. The most typical patients are those under 18 years of age. 

Doctors will prescribe such treatments as chemotherapy and radiation therapy. A specialized nurse usually will carry out infusing the prescribed chemotherapy, and a radiation specialist generally will carry out prescribed radiation treatments.

Surgeons will typically remove tumors and perform bone marrow transplants, which are complex procedures that need years of practice to master.

Lymphoma, genetic blood disorders, leukemia and embryonic tumors are four of the most common health issues that a doctor will treat in this area.

On average, it takes 14 years to complete the education and training necessary to become a doctor in this field.

When to see an oncologist

Any child with cancer or a genetic blood disorder will likely need to see a doctor in this field, especially if the condition includes leukemia (most commonly, acute lymphoblastic leukemia), brain tumors, neuroblastomas, sarcomas, osteosarcoma, Wilms' tumors and rhabdomyosarcoma.

Leukemias are the most commonly seen cancers in children, followed by tumors that affect the central nervous system. Some cancers only require surgery, others only require chemotherapy but many require a variety of different combined treatments. Only a doctor in this field will have the specialized knowledge necessary to create a comprehensive treatment plan that has the potential to cure a patient.

Types of leukemia account for approximately one-third of childhood cancers, according to the National Cancer Institute. The International Classification of Childhood Cancers categorizes 12 major types of cancer that occur during childhood:

  • Leukemias, myeloproliferative diseases and myelodysplastic diseases. This type includes acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) and acute myeloid leukemia (AML).

  • Lymphomas and reticuloendothelial neoplasms. This type includes including Hodgkin, non-Hodgkin and Burkitt lymphomas.

  • Central nervous system (CNS) and miscellaneous intracranial and intraspinal neoplasms. This type can include tumors of the spinal cord as well as astrocytoma, brain stem glioma, high-grade glioma, craniopharyngioma, desmoplastic infantile ganglioglioma, ependymoma, medulloblastoma and atypical teratoid rhabdoid tumor.

  • Neuroblastoma and other peripheral nervous cell tumors. Oncologists often find this type of tumor in the adrenal glands.

  • Retinoblastoma. This type of tumor occurs in the eye.

  • Renal tumors. This type affects the kidneys.

  • Hepatic tumors affecting the liver.

  • Malignant bone tumors.

  • Soft tissue and other extraosseous sarcomas.

  • Germ cell tumors, trophoblastic tumors and neoplasms of gonads.

  • Other malignant epithelial neoplasms and malignant melanomas.

  • Other and unspecified malignant neoplasms.

In some cases, the doctor will focus strictly on cancer or genetic blood disorders, such as sickle-cell anemia, thalassemia and hemophilia. These disorders are not related to cancer, but many doctors in this field also specialize in them, and they need a strong knowledge of hematology to treat such cancers as leukemia.

A doctor will be able to create a treatment plan that lessens the symptoms and overall impact of genetic blood disorders. These conditions currently have no cure, but treatments can bring comfort to children who have them.

Choosing a pediatric oncologist

When seeking a doctor in pediatric oncology, you'll want a doctor with extensive experience in treating your child's specific type of cancer, especially for rarer childhood cancers.

You'll want to find a doctor who takes a whole approach. For example, a doctor who merely treats a patient and is uninvolved in other ways is likely not the best choice. Children should have a doctor who also works to reduce the complications and the potential side effects related to treatment and can give a child as comfortable an environment as possible.

Choosing a doctor who can provide personalized medicine and the latest and most comprehensive treatment is key. In addition to common and effective treatments, children also should be offered such services as counseling and immune-boosting therapies.

A doctor who includes the child in his or her own care is also important. Giving the child a little power can make the process less scary. Doctors should consider the parents and offer them some help, as it is very difficult to be a parent of a child with cancer. Such opportunities may include counseling and group therapy.

If you know that you'll need the services of a pediatric oncologist, contact your health insurance company to make sure that this medical specialty is covered. Depending on your policy, you may need a referral from your primary pediatrician in order for your policy to pay for treatment. 

Read through the listing of pediatric oncologists in the provider directory available from your health insurance company. Verify their qualifications, education, continuing education, accepted insurance plans and affiliated hospitals by consulting Angie's List, where you can also see member reviews and rankings. 


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