Risk factors

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A risk factor is anything that increases a person’s chance of developing a certain condition or disease, such as cancer. In adults, lifestyle and environmental factors (such as smoking or exposure to certain chemicals) can be significant risk factors for developing certain types of cancer. In children, very few risk factors have been identified that increase the chance of developing cancer. For most children with cancer, the underlying cause is unknown.

Even if your child has a risk factor, it does not mean they will develop cancer. Many children with a risk factor will never develop cancer, while others with cancer may have had no known risk factors. Even if a child with a risk factor develops cancer, it is usually hard to know how much that risk factor contributed to the development of their disease.

The causes of melanoma in children are not well understood, but several factors associated with a higher chance of developing melanoma include the following.

Exposure to UV light

The main risk factor for melanoma is exposure to UV (ultraviolet) light over a long time, either as natural sunlight or as artificial sunlight (such as tanning beds). The risk is higher if your child has:

  • fair skin that burns easily
  • blue or green eyes
  • red or blonde hair
  • moles on their skin, especially if some of them are unusual
  • a history of blistering sunburns.

Family history

If other members of the family have unusual moles or have had melanoma, this may increase the chance that your child could develop melanoma.

Knowledge of your family’s history relating to cancer may change over time.

Genetic conditions

Certain genetic conditions are associated with a higher chance of developing melanoma. These include:

  • giant melanocytic nevi
  • xeroderma pigmentosum
  • some immune system disorders
  • Werner syndrome
  • retinoblastoma.

Mutations in a gene called BRAF are associated with melanoma.

If your child is diagnosed with one of these genetic conditions, they will need specific follow-up. The health care team will advise which ongoing tests your child will need.

Cancers in children that are linked to genetic conditions may also affect the risk for other family members. Speak to your child’s treatment team to see whether genetic counselling is recommended for you or your family.

For more information about genetic conditions, see the children’s cancer glossary or the Centre for Genetics Education.

published: Sunday, 23 August, 2015