Pediatric non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) is a type of lung cancer that affects children and adolescents. It may be treatable using methods such as surgery and chemotherapy.

Pediatric NSCLC is rare, and researchers are working to understand the condition in more detail. Doctors can successfully treat some forms of pediatric NSCLC with a combination of chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and surgery.

This article covers pediatric NSCLC, its symptoms, and risk factors. It also looks at treatment options and outlook.

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Pediatric NSCLC is the term doctors use if NSCLC develops in children and adolescents. It is rare for this cancer to develop in anyone under 40 and even rarer in children and adolescents.

NSCLC is an umbrella term encompassing several types of lung cancer, including:

The NSCLC that develops in young people is typically ALK-positive. This is where a mutation on the anaplastic lymphoma kinase (ALK) gene causes lung cancer. It typically occurs in people without a history of smoking.

Pediatric NSCLC is rare, and doctors are still trying to clearly identify its signs and symptoms. The disease can cause symptoms that are similar to NSCLC in adults.

Symptoms may start with a chronic cough that persists without responding to treatment. It might also cause chest pain with the cough or when the person takes deep breaths. Other symptoms may include:

People may also experience persistent lung infections, such as pneumonia or bronchitis.

NSCLC may metastasize, where it can spread to other areas of the body and cause additional symptoms.

Lung cancer happens because cells in the lungs begin to divide uncontrollably, forming tumors that harm healthy tissue. Doctors are unclear on the exact cause of pediatric NSCLC and why some children develop it while others do not.

Research suggests that genetic mutations could increase the risk of lung cancer. Experts also believe that multiple hereditary and environmental factors may play a role in a child developing NSCLC.

Smoking is the main risk factor for NSCLC in adults. This is because smoking can alter the genes responsible for suppressing tumors. These alterations allow cells to multiple uncontrollably and cause tumors.

However, children and adolescents are unlikely to have a long history of smoking, and other unknown risk factors likely exist for pediatric NSCLC.

Experts estimate that smoking causes 90% of lung cancers. Other risks for NSCLC in adults include:

  • a family history of lung cancer
  • exposure to environmental toxins, such as radon, asbestos, and arsenic
  • regular exposure to secondhand smoke
  • exposure to some pollutants, such as from a car exhaust

NSCLC is the most common form of lung cancer, accounting for around 85% of new lung cancer cases in the United States each year. Most of these cases are in people over 45, and the risks for children and adolescents are still unclear.

Children and adolescents with pediatric NSCLC will receive care from a team of pediatric oncologists who diagnose and treat cancer in young people.

The treatment protocol will depend on:

  • disease stage
  • tumor size
  • cancer subtype
  • specific symptoms
  • the child’s age and general health

Treatment options for pediatric NSCLC include:

  • Surgery: A surgeon may be able to remove the tumor if the cancer has not spread to the child’s lymph nodes.
  • Chemotherapy: This treatment kills fast-dividing cells, including cancerous and healthy cells. Doctors may use chemotherapy in combination with surgery or other therapies.
  • Radiation: This therapy uses concentrated, high-energy beams to destroy cancer cells and shrink tumors.
  • Targeted therapies: These therapies target and kill specific types of cancer cells without harming healthy cells.

Doctors may recommend that the child participate in a clinical trial for a novel therapy if other treatments are not working.

The outlook is generally poor for anyone with pediatric NSCLC that has metastasized.

However, a 2021 review using data from the German registry of rare pediatric tumors found that some people with pediatric NSCLC can reach remission.

The researchers identified 12 children and adolescents with pediatric NSCLC in 10 years of data. The cancer did not metastasize in seven cases, and doctors successfully removed the tumors. Two children died, and three went into remission following multiple forms of treatment.

Receiving a cancer diagnosis is a difficult time for the child and their family.

The National Cancer Institute has a guide for parents of children with cancer. It covers explaining cancer, helping a child to cope with their emotions, and practical tips on finding support. There is also a guide for teenagers who have a sibling with cancer.

The American Childhood Cancer Organization provides information, advocacy, and support for children with cancer and their families. It also provides online support groups and in-person meetings in some areas.

CancerCare provides free, professional support to children and their caregivers to help them manage emotional and practical challenges. The organization also provides telephone counseling with oncology social workers, educational workshops, and financial assistance.

Pediatric NSCLC is a rare form of lung cancer in children and adolescents. Scientists and doctors are still working to understand the condition and its causes.

Doctors can use surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy to treat pediatric NSCLC. Additionally, clinical trials are ongoing to identify new forms of treatment for pediatric NSCLC. The outlook for this condition is generally poor if the cancer has metastasized.