Recent studies making headlines have revealed that despite occurrences of childhood cancer increasing in America, death rates for young victims of the disease have significantly decreased. While this is good news for those facing childhood cancer and their loved ones, there also appears to be a high risk of chronic health problems in adulthood among those who count themselves as survivors of childhood cancer.
Researchers looking into the issue have generally come to a consensus that these chronic adult health conditions often occur as a result of the aggressive surgeries, radiation therapy and chemotherapy that survivors have undergone to battle their childhood cancer.
One extensive study examining 1,700 adult survivors of childhood cancer found that as many as 95 percent of them suffered from at least one chronic health issue as they reached middle age. This number is considered “extraordinarily high” and has been described as even higher than the study authors anticipated. In comparison, only about 38 percent of the general population between the ages of 35 and 64 has at least one chronic health problem.
Researchers studied the 1,700 subjects aged 18 to 60, all of whom had been diagnosed with cancer as children between the years of 1962 and 2001 at the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, in an effort to learn more about the long-term impact that childhood cancer and its resulting treatments might have on victims as they approach adulthood.
All of the study participants were at least 10 years past their diagnosis and returned to St. Jude to undergo extensive examinations and testing. The researchers included a look at specific risks that individual survivors may face due to either the type of cancer they had or the type of treatments with which they were provided. Some of the chronic health problems identified were previously unknown to participants and were diagnosed as a result of the their participation in the research.
Of note were specific findings that slightly over 56 percent of those childhood cancer survivors who were treated with therapies known to present a risk of cardiac problems did eventually present with cardiac issues. One participant in the study reported that despite a generally healthy lifestyle, researchers found that he had a serious heart issue and he had bypass surgery just weeks afterward.
Other commonly identified health problems among the adult survivors of childhood cancer were heart valve abnormalities, believed to be a result of radiation therapy, loss of hearing, memory impairment and the development of subsequent cancers with age.
The St. Jude researchers say that this study demonstrates that medical professionals need to be more attuned to the specific health risks that their patients who have survived childhood cancer may face. Childhood cancer survivors may need to be screened for particular diseases at an earlier age than the general population, in part, researchers believe, because of the possible association between cancer treatments and more rapid aging of the organs. As more is learned about the potential long-term risks of the aggressive treatments used to treat childhood cancers, doctors are working to ensure that young patients receive the lowest possible effective doses of cancer-fighting medications and that radiation therapy is only administered when absolutely necessary.
By Michele Wessel