Childhood Cancers: Long-Term Effects of Treatment
The last 30 years have seen remarkable progress in the treatment of childhood cancers. For example, survival rates for leukemia—the most common childhood cancer—have climbed from about 60% in the mid-1970s to about 85% today. Overall survival of childhood cancers has rocketed from 10% in the early 1970s to more than 70% today.
But all medical treatments have both benefits and potential harms. This is no less true for cancer treatments than for other medical therapies. Some cancer treatments have side effects even after they have led to a cure. This is especially true for childhood brain cancer and leukemia. Now that childhood cancer survivors are living longer, researchers are beginning to learn more about the possible late side effects of childhood cancer treatments.
Your child’s doctor will make every effort to select treatments that will minimize future risks, as well as discuss what you and your child can expect in a cancer-free future. This article will acquaint you with some topics that might come up in such a discussion.
It is important to keep the possible long-term side effects of cancer treatment in perspective. You and your child have already won the most difficult battle by conquering the cancer.
Long-term Side Effects of Chemotherapy and Radiation
Many cancers are treated with radiation (high-energy rays that kill or shrink cancer cells) or with chemotherapy, which are drugs designed to kill cancer cells while causing the least harm possible to normal tissues. Two side effects of radiation and chemotherapy that often raise concern are the risk of a second cancer developing at some later time, and the potential risk to a child’s future fertility.
Children who have been successfully treated for childhood cancer face a small but increased risk of developing a second cancer—of an entirely different kind—during their lifetime. Scientists still don’t completely understand second cancers and they currently have no way of predicting which children are susceptible and which children are not. This risk will likely diminish in the future as doctors use new cancer treatments specifically designed to minimize the development of second cancers.
While most childhood cancer survivors are able to have children, fertility problems can still occur due to cancer treatment. Radiation and chemotherapy affect pregnancy rates more than other treatments, and boys’ fertility tends to be a greater issue than girls’. Treatment may lower sperm count in boys, while ovaries may be affected in girls.
Your child's doctor can advise you whether your child’s treatment has a significant chance of affecting fertility. The health of children born to survivors of childhood cancer is not affected by their parent’s history of cancer.
Side Effects Associated With Brain Cancer
Brain cancer is the second most common childhood cancer. The good news about childhood brain cancer is that survival has increased dramatically in recent years. Reducing the complications of treatment for this disease, which often involves surgical removal of a tumor followed by radiation therapy to the brain and/or spinal column, remains a serious challenge for children, parents, and doctors.
While treatment breakthroughs are anticipated, complications after current treatments of brain cancer are both more frequent and more troublesome than with many other cancers. Be sure to have your child’s doctor explain the kinds of complications that may be expected following treatment for brain cancer and the efforts that will be made to minimize them. Some of the side effects that do occur after treatment for brain cancer include:
- Changes in behavior and school performance
- Changes in growth rate and sexual maturation
- Thyroid problems
As mentioned above, survivors of brain cancer may experience trouble with school performance. Children who undergo chemotherapeutic treatment for leukemia may also experience neurocognitive problems. Your child may find that when he first goes back to school, he may have trouble learning, paying attention, and generally keeping up with his or her peers.
As physicians become more aware of the potential for neurocognitive problems, they are taking steps to identify children who may be affected, and to make sure they receive appropriate educational support. Early identification and support can help your child cope with and overcome these challenges.
In addition, some medical treatment centers, such as St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, are developing new techniques to deliver radiation therapy that aim to minimize or even eliminate long-term side effects in children with brain cancer, without compromising the effectiveness of treatment.
Emotional Effects of Cancer and Cancer Treatment
In today’s cancer centers for children, doctors and nurses make efforts to reduce the pain and fear associated with cancer. Despite these efforts, cancer is a frightening disease, and its treatment is rarely without some discomfort. Despite the best medical and nursing care, some survivors of childhood cancer find that memories and anxiety associated with cancer keep sprouting back into their lives, even years after treatment is finished.
When fears and memories return frequently and intensely, psychologists may make a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD does occur in some children who are cured of cancer.
In an effort to help your child from falling victim to PTSD, the oncology staff will likely want to talk with your child about his or her feelings. Many centers use play therapy so that younger children can express feelings of fear or anxiety. If you find your child continues to worry about cancer or to have disturbing memories or dreams about the treatment process, talk with your doctor about getting psychological help, which may prevent the long-term development of PTSD.
Cancer and Hope
Today, cure is a realistic outcome for most children with cancer, and only a minority of children will have long-term complications from their treatments. Even though worrying about future complications is understandable, these concerns should not take precedence over potentially curative treatment decisions. Be sure, however, to ask questions about long-term risks and how they can be minimized. Keep precise records of what treatments your child received and when. And find a doctor that is capable of creating a trusting, long-term relationship with your child. Your child will need to depend on someone other than you when facing the challenges that lie ahead.
American Cancer Society
Families of Children with Cancer
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Last reviewed March 2008 by Marcin Chwistek, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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