Causes of childhood cancer

Most of the time, we simply don't know why some children and young people get cancer. Although we can't be sure of the causes, we do know that you don’t catch cancer from people, and you can’t pass it on to others. It’s also important to understand that it's very unlikely that anything you've done has caused your child's cancer - so there's no need to feel guilty.

Growth and development

It is possible that some cancers start before your child was born when their cells are dividing rapidly while they are still in the womb. Cancers such as bone tumours in teenagers and young people may also be related to periods of fast growth when the cells are dividing rapidly, but their exact cause is not known.


It is thought that some cancers can occur after exposure to a type of virus – for example, the virus that causes glandular fever. Some types of the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) have been linked to an increased risk of developing cervical cancer.

Genetic conditions

Certain genetic conditions can increase your child's risk of cancer. For example, people with Down’s syndrome have an increased risk of leukaemia. 

In some cases, your child may be slightly more likely to get certain types of cancer if their siblings or other family members have also been affected. Retinoblastoma, a rare form of eye cancer, is known to be inherited in 40% of cases.

Brothers and sisters of someone with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia are at a slightly increased risk of developing it themselves but it is very rare and unlikely that siblings will require special monitoring.

Cancer treatment

Some types of cancer treatments, such as radiotherapy and chemotherapy, do increase the risk of later developing another type of cancer. However, this is a rare occurrence – the risk is small compared to the risk of leaving your child's original cancer untreated.

Updated September 2017, next review due 2019.