Childhood Cancer Survivors and Chronic Health Problems

Cancer is one of the gravest problems in America, but the incidence of childhood cancer is startling. According to the John Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center, more than 15,000 children and teenagers are diagnosed with cancer each year, and one-seventh of those do not survive.

The most prevalent forms of cancer among children, leukemia and cancers of the central nervous system, are among the most difficult forms of cancer to treat in general. Although advances in cancer therapies show promise, these treatments seem to impact children, youth and families increasingly with age, and recent studies suggest childhood cancer is only the beginning problem.


Childhood Cancer Survivors Experience Lower Health-Related Quality of Life

Successful cancer treatment is laden with risk. Modern cancer treatments, which include surgery, radiation and chemotherapy, achieve greater success, but these therapies are highly aggressive, asserts the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Yet, the confusion continues, and researchers continue to uncover further evidence of health problems after childhood cancer.

Childhood cancer is terrifying, and children, youth and families view conquering cancer as the successful outcome. New findings suggest the quality of life of childhood cancer survivors is similar to that of middle-aged adults.

Health-related quality of life is determined by the “presence of chronic health problems,” which include hypertension, heart disease, lung disease, diabetes, infertility and the onset of other cancers. These conditions typically develop during middle age. However, 80 percent of childhood cancer survivors suffer from one or more of these conditions.


Impact of Poor Health-Related Quality of Life

While the increased risk of poor health-related quality of life among childhood cancer survivors seems clear, the evidence suggests cancer is indirectly linked to this problem. In other words, chronic health problems tend to arise from cancer treatments, the key contributing factors in the study.

Chronic health problems often require ongoing treatment to manage the condition. This may include medications, surgery and additional therapies.

For example, hypertension may require medication treatment, drastic changes in diet and exercise regimens, or surgery if a cardiovascular event occurs. The list of complications goes on and on, and each chronic condition leads to a subset of additional complications, which require further treatment.


Future of Childhood Cancer Survivors

Nearly 2,000 children with cancer lose their battles annually, and the number of childhood cancer survivors will increase in the coming years, asserts the National Cancer Institute. This is due to a gradual increase in the prevalence and incidence of childhood cancer, which has been steadily increasing over the last 46 years. Yet, the mortality rates for childhood cancer are decreasing concurrently.

These facts imply a greater problem for the future of preventing childhood cancer in community health initiatives. As the number of children who survive cancer increases, the incidence of chronic conditions among childhood cancer survivors will grow.


What Can You Do About It?

The importance of early detection of cancer has become a standard principle of society. Yet, the perception of innocence contributes to decreased vigilance for cancer in children. Parents and caregivers see children as healthy, even when they may not be. Moreover, cancer is the last thing parents suspect, and a visit to the oncologist is even farther away from their worries.

The discussion on childhood cancer must be returned to one of prevention, not reaction. Today’s children are an increased risk for obesity, which is a leading risk factor for cancer, and the battle over the safety of pesticides, genetically modified foods (GMOs), and other substances rages on in the political scene. Rather than assigning blame, the focus must shift to taking preventative measures and recognizing potential health problems when they arise.

Actionable steps to lower the risk of childhood cancer closely mirror the preventative measures against adult cancers. According to the Mayo Clinic, basic preventative measures against cancer include the following:

  • Eating a healthy, balanced diet.
  • Reducing exposure to radiation, which includes sunlight. If a child spends extra time outdoors, apply sunblock as directed by the manufacturer.
  • Eliminating potential sources of unnecessary contact with chemicals and pesticides.
  • Reducing the risk of becoming sick from viruses or bacteria. For example, wear mosquito-repellent to prevent possible contraction of hemorrhagic fevers. Every illness weakens the immune system temporarily.
  • Avoiding tobacco. Although this seems counterproductive, given the focus on preventing childhood cancer, secondhand smoke contains cancer-causing chemicals. As a result, children who are exposed to secondhand tobacco smoke may have an increased risk for developing cancer.
  • Getting immunized. Immunizations help to protect the body against viral infections, and several viruses have been linked to different types of cancers. However, these known links do not routinely result in the cancers that commonly affect children.
  • Seeing a doctor regularly. THIS IS THE MOST IMPORTANT MEANS OF PREVENTING CHILDHOOD CANCER. Seeing a doctor regularly will increase the chances of detecting childhood cancer early, which improves prognosis and lessens the need for more aggressive treatments.


Final Thoughts on Childhood Cancer

No one wants to think about childhood cancer, but it’s a reality of the modern world. Children, youth and families are depending on all of us to re-tune the dialogue. Childhood cancer does not result in chronic conditions; toxic, aggressive treatments cause these problems.

Only time will tell if newer cancer therapies will reduce the incidence of poor health-related quality of life in childhood cancer survivors. Until then, we must work together to give children the best possible chance to avoid childhood cancer and identify potential cases as soon as possible.

Jason Vanover

Working in health care since 2005, Jason's body of experience encompasses dozens of care settings, including Senior care, psychiatric facilities, nonprofit health service centers, group homes for those with developmental disabilities and beyond. Jason understands the need to tailor his skills to each setting to encourage the best treatment outcomes and promote an inclusive, healing environment.

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