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High-Yield Facts


  • Acute leukemia is the most common malignancy in childhood and may present with a variety of symptoms including fever, fatigue, bleeding, adenopathy, or bone pain.

  • Most oncologic emergencies arise from metabolic, hematologic, structural, or toxic chemotherapy effects.

  • Findings associated with inflammation may be absent in the neutropenic patient, with fever the only sign of serious infection.

  • Infection may progress rapidly in the neutropenic host; evaluation and initiation of antibiotic therapy must be done urgently.

  • Tumor lysis syndrome (TLS) results from the death of tumor cells and release of their intracellular contents leading to hyperuricemia, hyperphosphatemia, and hyperkalemia.

  • Mediastinal compression from the tumors may result in superior vena cava syndrome (SVCS) or superior mediastinal syndrome (SMS), resulting in an airway emergency.


Approximately 10% of childhood deaths are related to cancer.1 The leukemias, central nervous system (CNS) tumors, and lymphomas account for more than one-half of all childhood malignancies. Advances in cancer treatment have led to improvement in survival rate. However, much of this progress has come with increased intensity of treatment regimens. It is important for the emergency physician to be aware of the common malignancies that occur in children and to be ready to treat the complications of cancer at presentation and during treatment.


Common Pediatric Malignancies

Acute Leukemias

Leukemia is a condition in which there is uncontrolled, clonal proliferation of an immature white blood cell (WBC) within the bone marrow, with subsequent suppression of normal hematopoiesis. Acute leukemia is the most common childhood malignancy, representing approximately 30% of newly diagnosed cancers.2 Acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) accounts for approximately 75% of pediatric leukemia, with acute myelogenous leukemia (AML) accounting for the other 25%. Chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML) accounting for less than 1% of all childhood cancers.


The peak incidence of ALL in children occurs between the ages of 3 and 5 years. Overall, approximately 80% of patients survive more than 5 years beyond diagnosis, with many patients considered cured of the disease.3 Unlike ALL, the incidence of AML is relatively constant throughout childhood and has a much poorer prognosis with approximately 60% of patients surviving at 5 years from diagnosis.4


The signs and symptoms of acute leukemia reflect replacement of bone marrow or extramedullary collections of leukemic blasts. Common presentations include pallor, fatigue, petechiae, purpura, and infection as a result of defective hematopoiesis from marrow replacement. Lymphadenopathy, hepatomegaly, splenomegaly, and mediastinal or testicular masses may represent extramedullary involvement. Bone pain results from leukemic involvement of the periosteum and bone, causing patients to limp or even refuse to walk. Leukemia may be present in the CNS, leading to cranial nerve deficits, headache, or changes in vision. The leukocyte count at diagnosis varies greatly and may be high, low, or normal. Even in the absence of neutropenia at diagnosis, patients should be considered immunocompromised as the WBCs produced may ...

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