Young Cancer Survivors Have Higher Risk of Severe Health Problems Later

25 February 2020

People who survive cancer during childhood and early adulthood are more likely to experience severe, life-threatening health problems later on in life. In fact, many of the survivors die before other people the same age.

Those are findings from a recent study. A report on the study was published this month in The Lancet Oncology.

Researchers followed almost 12,000 young cancer survivors and about 5,000 of their siblings for about 20 years. All of these relatives were said to be in good health.

FILE PHOTO: A scientist studies cancer cells inside white blood cells through a microscope at the GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) research centre in Stevenage, Britain November 26, 2019.
FILE PHOTO: A scientist studies cancer cells inside white blood cells through a microscope at the GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) research centre in Stevenage, Britain November 26, 2019.

The cancer survivors were free of the disease for at least five years at the start of the study. Yet they were still about six times more likely to die during the follow-up period than their siblings.

Tara Henderson was the lead writer of the report. She noted, "Before 1960, cancer before the age of 21 years was uniformly fatal, and currently about 83% of anyone diagnosed with cancer before the age of 21 years can be cured."

Henderson is director of cancer survivorship at the University of Chicago's Comprehensive Cancer Center. She said that doctors need to put more effort into learning the long-term side effects of cancer treatment. The Reuters news agency reported her comments.

Better survival chances also mean children may have a higher risk of developing health problems as a result of tumors or cancer treatments. The problems include heart disease, old cancers returning or possible new cancers.

Many doctors turn to chemotherapy to treat cancer patients. They use drugs to stop the growth of cancer cells, either by killing the cells or by stopping them from dividing.

Yet chemotherapy can weaken the heart muscle and some newer targeted medicines increase the risk of heart failure. So says the American Heart Association. The group also notes that radiation can cause heart rhythm disorders and structural damage in blood vessels and heart valves.

By age 45, 56 percent of the childhood cancer survivors diagnosed with the disease before age 15 had developed severe health problems. That compares with 39 percent of survivors diagnosed while growing up or in early adulthood and 12 percent of siblings without any history of cancer.

Death rates were also higher for cancer survivors diagnosed during childhood than for those diagnosed during adolescence or early adulthood.

However, survivors of childhood cancer were less likely to die from returning tumors than survivors who were diagnosed a little later.

Researchers followed people diagnosed with cancer between 1970 and 1999. They found that it is possible that long-term results might be better for people diagnosed today because of better treatments. The researchers said that is partly because of changes designed to improve survival chances and decrease the risk of severe treatment-related health problems.

One limitation of the study is that researchers lacked information on three kinds of cancer: tumors in the gonads, thyroid, and skin. Those three make up about 40 percent of cancers discovered in 15-to 20-year-olds.

Päivi Lähteenmäki is a doctor with Turku University in Finland and the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden. She noted that, "Some cancer-related complications do not become apparent until several years following cancer treatment."

In an email to Reuters, she urged cancer patients to "adopt a healthy lifestyle to help make severe or life-threatening medical issues less likely to develop." She added that patients can do a number of things, including exercising, eating well, not smoking and keeping a healthy body weight.

I'm Jonathan Evans.

Lisa Rapaport reported this story for the Reuters news service. Jonathan Evans adapted it for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.


Words in This Story

adolescence – n. the period of life between childhood and adulthood

diagnose – v. to recognize a disease, illness, etc. by examining someone

fatal – adj. causing death

gonads – n. sex organs that produce sperm or eggs; testicles or ovaries

lifestyle – n. a particular way of living; the way a person lives or a group of people live

tumor – n. a mass of tissue found in or on the body that is made up of abnormal cells