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Wilms’ tumor: The cancer that strikes children

» What it is

» Symptoms often silent

» Diagnosing the disease

» Treatment plan

» Seeking support

Researchers are always searching for better ways to treat childhood cancer. When it comes to Wilms’ tumor, the most common solid tumor occurring in children, researchers’ efforts are paying off. Today, most children diagnosed with Wilms’ tumor will survive, provided the cancer is caught at an early stage.

What it is

Wilms’ tumor, or nephroblastoma, arises from a kidney cell that is altered during the earliest stages of development. For this reason, the disease occurs primarily in children who are between 2 and 5 years old.

Symptoms often silent

Often, the disease has no apparent symptoms and is usually found when a doctor examines a child’s abdomen and detects a mass. Sometimes a parent may notice an abdominal lump, an enlarged abdomen (for example, causing a rapid change to a larger diaper size) or blood in the child’s urine. Other clues include abdominal pain, poor appetite, nausea, vomiting, shortness of breath, cough or high blood pressure. Other indicators are developmental abnormalities, such as aniridia, a condition in which the iris, the colored area of the eye, is missing. Children with these disorders have a much higher than average occurrence of Wilms’ tumor.

Diagnosing the disease

If the physician suspects cancer, a special kidney X-ray called an intravenous pyelography (IVP) will be taken, as well as an ultrasound exam and a computed tomography (CT) scan.

The CT scan will help doctors determine if the disease has spread. Sometimes doctors perform additional tests, including a biopsy, in which a tissue sample is obtained for analysis.

Treatment plan

Treatment and prognosis for a child with Wilms’ tumor depends on the illness’s stage and the cell type involved. In any case, it is usually necessary to remove the affected kidney.

Chemotherapy and sometimes radiation therapy follow. If both kidneys are affected, physicians will diagnose and treat the tumors in each kidney individually, making every attempt to save at least one.

Seeking support

Sometimes parents of children with cancer don’t know where to turn for understanding. Along with a child’s healthcare team, social workers, mental health professionals and support groups can help families confront their emotions and cope with the cancer.


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