Impacts of childhood cancers last long after they end

Recently in looking over the messages to the Canadian Cancer Survivor Network, we found a note written by someone asking about survivors of childhood cancers. 

The request was for information about adult survivors who were treated for cancer in the sixties and seventies as children. The concern was that there were no programs to monitor the long-term side effects from the chemo and radiation treatments. It is for this reason that for International Childhood Cancer Day that we would like to shine a spotlight on what can happen after the initial cancer is dealt with. 

Childhood cancer survivorship varies from place to place. In some parts of the world, survivorship is as high as 86 percent. However, despite the high rate, long-term effects of treatment are what makes childhood cancers particularly difficult to weather. According to Childhood Cancer Survivor Canada, 50 percent of Canada’s 45,000 survivors have at least 1 long-term disabling or life-changing condition after treatment. 

Many of the issues affecting childhood cancer survivors are psychological. Fear of recurrence is common across all those who have dealt with cancer, and long-term emotional problems for those who deal with it as a child are no exception. Anxiety, depression, issues with memory, thinking and attention, and difficulty learning are all side effects of treatment at such a young age. 

On top of this, childhood cancer survivors also develop the risk of second cancers. This cancer is different than the first, and is often a skin, breast or thyroid cancer. Radiation, chemotherapy and some cancer drugs have been linked to these second cancers.  

What’s more, depending on where the cancer is located, many survivors have to deal with infertility. Radiation therapy to the lower abdomen, pelvis, testicles, and lower spine can cause survivors to not be able to father children, conceive a child, or maintain a pregnancy. Certain chemo drugs can also affect fertility as well. In addition, the treatments can affect the hormone levels in both men and women, and radiation treatment or steroid drugs can cause delayed, early or uneven growth in young children. 

This is on top of many other side effects, like heart, lung, dental, digestive, hearing and vision problems. 

Luckily for some of these issues, therapy and treatment does exist. Yearly checkups by an oncologist are often recommended to get the most out of survivorship, and AfterCare clinics in Canada are there to meet the needs of those who have dealt with childhood cancers. Fertility and hormone treatments are available to survivors, and lifestyle and diet changes can help stave off second cancers. With adequate care, survivors can manage the side effects and have a healthy survivorship.  

One of the more concerning things about childhood cancer is that the cause of them is largely unknown. Often, we associate getting types of cancer with lifestyle choices like smoking. But for childhood cancers, that is not the case. It is a reminder that while cancer is influenced by many things, it can at times be a simple roll of the dice. It is also a reminder that even when the cancer has cleared and the bell is rung, survivorship does not end there and for these children, it is a life-long struggle. 

Childhood Cancer Survivor Canada has compiled a list of information and resources for those who have had childhood cancers. You can find their website here.