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Why Do People Get Cancer?

Our bodies are made up of cells. Cancer happens when cells divide out of control.
Our bodies are made up of cells. Cancer happens when cells divide out of control.

A cancer diagnosis can be scary, and for kids it can be bewildering. We've gotten some questions about cancer and in this episode we answer them with Dr. Donald Small, director of pediatric oncology at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. We answer how people get sick when it's not caused by germs, how people get cancer, and why cancer "does not have a cure." There's nothing graphic or scary in this episode, but adults may want to give this episode a listen if cancer is something your littles have been dealing with.


"My question is how do you get sick, not from other people? " - John, 4

Lots of common illnesses like colds and flu are caused by germs we pick up from other people. But that's not true for all diseases. Cancer isn't contagious. But it's a little hard for young people to understand or imagine what cancer is. Dr. Small helps explain it this way:

"When we're growing, our cells have to divide. That's how we get bigger. And sometimes the cells make a mistake and they grow out of control. If that error lets them grow faster than other cells, they outgrow the normal cells. Just these abnormal cells growing fast -- is what cancer is."

But how do those cells start growing out of control? And why does it happen to some people and not others? Those are questions researchers are still studying. Dr. Small says adult cancers tend to be a little different from childhood cancers.

"Their cells aren't growing so actively -- except the cells that make up the blood," he explains. "But their bodies are being exposed to things in the environment, and over many years these can cause damage to the cells and sometimes these damaged cells end up growing when they shouldn't be growing.".

Luckily, cancer in children is rare. And Dr. Small says most cancers that happen in children are treatable. 70 to 80 percent of kids who get cancer go on to live long, happy, healthy lives after their treatment.

Read the full transcript

Click here for more resources for talking to kids about cancer.

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