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Life After Childhood Cancers
July 29, 2015
By: Kristine Alarcon
Edited by: Juliana Zhu, Esq.
Childhood cancer is often difficult to face, not only for the child but also for the parents. Though it is a blessing when the child conquers and survives the disease, cancer may still be a ghost and haunt the child.
Children have a high risk of “late effects” after cancer. Even though radiation and chemotherapy drugs are the treatment of choice for cancer, they can be very harmful. They are effective at killing the cancerous cells, but they may also cause damage to the DNA of the cells near them. The undetected harm to the normal cells can develop into late effects, such as growth problems, neurocognitive effects, heart and other cardiovascular problems, infertility, and even another type of cancer.
Dr. Gregory Armstrong, the principal investigator of Childhood Cancer Survivor Study, reports that 22 percent of childhood cancer survivors develop a second cancer, malignant or benign cancers, within 30 years from the diagnosis of their original cancer. Based on the study, 11 percent of these cancer survivors will be diagnosed with a malignant tumor when they are young adults. Childhood cancer survivors are also 15 times more likely to die from a second cancer than the general population.
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The childhood cancer survivor population is still growing as the success rate of curing these cancers is rising. 80 percent of childhood cancers are cured in pediatric oncology wards across the US. Sometimes, there are survival rates of 90 percent.
Though this is good news, there is still a large number of survivors who contract secondary illnesses as adults. Their treatments from their first cancer can create complications and late effects. For example, with a higher dose of radiation, there is a higher risk of second cancer. Chemotherapy and radiation directed towards the chest can cause complications in heart function, disease, or death. Other chemotherapy can cause genetic mutations, which can develop into another cancer.
Oncologists are doing their best to limit the use of radiation when treating leukemias and Hodgkin lymphoma to help prevent the long-term effects associated with the treatments. There are new developments in technology that can directly target a tumor and prevent the spread of radiation to normal tissues, like proton beam irradiation. There are also measures to allow doctors to lower the chemotherapy drug dosages, and the option to choose better drugs.
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Care after survival is not only important for physical health; it is important for emotional and psychological health. There is a 13-17 percent chance that a childhood cancer survivor will experience troubles with their mental health. Though it can be difficult to address the psychological problems that come after cancer survival, it is possible that a cancer patient may suffer survivor guilt when they outlive their friends from the support groups comprised of other terminally ill patients. They may also experience psychological distress as well as anxiety or pain. Mental health complications can also negatively effect cognitive ability. One-third of childhood cancer survivors between ages 20 and 49 have experienced trouble in prioritizing tasks, solving problems and remembering things compared to others their age.
Even though surviving cancer is a significant milestone to celebrate for these children, it is important to consider how cancer can still affect them down the road.
Kristine Alarcon graduated at the University of San Francisco with a Bachelors of Science in Biology. She is working towards certification in Sterile Processing and Distribution. She is a Social Media Assistant at Cancer InCytes Magazine.