Although childhood cancer survival rates have increased dramatically, treatments that have boosted their numbers are associated with chronic conditions that lower their quality of life as adults. According to a new study published April 21 in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, young cancer survivors often feel old before their time.
The critical factor in determining people’s sense of well-being is the presence or absence of chronic health conditions. Studies have shown that childhood cancer survivors have higher risks of heart disease, infertility, lung disease, cancers and other chronic conditions largely related to prior chemotherapy, radiation and surgery.
“Our findings indicate survivors’ accelerated aging, and also help us understand the health-related risks associated with having had cancer as a child,” senior author Lisa Diller, MD, chief medical officer at Dana Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Clinic, said in a news release.
“What’s encouraging is that the lower quality of life scores are associated with chronic diseases after treatment, not with a history of pediatric cancer itself,” Diller added. “If we can prevent treatment-related conditions by changes in the therapy we use for the cancer, then childhood cancer will become an acute, rather than a chronic illness.”
For the study, Diller and her colleagues analyzed data collected from 18-to-49-year-olds who had cancer as a child and participated in the Childhood Cancer Survivor Study (CCSS). The research team looked at 7,105 survivors of pediatric cancer and 372 of their siblings. They also analyzed data on 12,803 healthy individuals from the Medical Expenditures Panel Survey for a comparison with the general population.
“By enabling comparisons to the general population, our findings provide context to better understand how the cancer experience may influence the long-term well-being of survivors,” lead author Jennifer Yeh, PhD, a research scientist at the Center for Health Decision Science at the Harvard Chan School, explained in the news release.
Study findings showed that only 20 percent of childhood cancer survivors reported no chronic conditions. Survivors between the ages of 18 and 29 had quality of life scores comparable to those reported by 40- to 49-year-olds in the general population.
“We found that the presence of chronic conditions was largely responsible for the difference in health-related quality of life between survivors and the general population,” Yeh told Reuters Health in an email.
Yeh noted that since the data was limited to people in early to middle adulthood, the research team cannot say how the survivors will do as they get older, though findings suggest they will experience accelerated aging. Still, the researchers see the study as “another way to understand the health challenges survivors face and where to focus efforts to improve the long-term health and quality of life of survivors.”