Emotional scars linger for childhood cancer survivors

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Approximately 270,000 of the 10 million cancer survivors alive in the U.S. were diagnosed and treated before they were old enough to buy themselves a drink, according to the National Cancer Institute. Thanks to scientific advances, as many as 80 percent of children treated for cancer go on to live full lives, but the shadow of the disease often lingers in the background. Physicians have long known that adult survivors of childhood cancer have an increased risk of some physical ills, such as a second cancer, early menopause, or stroke. But new research suggests there are long-lasting emotional scars as well.

For starters, adults who survived childhood cancer are 20 to 25 percent less likely to say “I do” than those who didn’t battle the disease, according to research published in this month’s issue of Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention. Researchers at Yale School of Medicine looked at nearly 9,000 adult survivors of childhood cancer and evaluated the frequency of marriage and divorce rates. They compared the survivors to their sibling groups as well as the general population.

The data showed that an estimated 46 percent of adult survivors of childhood cancer never married. Another 42 percent of survivors were married and 7.3 percent were separated or divorced. “Our findings suggest that in addition to the long-term physical effects of cancer, social implications also exist,” says Nina Kadan-Lottick, MD, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Yale School of Medicine and one of the study’s authors.

A second study, published in the online edition of the Journal of Clinical Oncology found that nearly 8% of childhood cancer survivors say they’ve had suicidal thoughts. Survivors of brain and central nervous system cancers were most likely to have had suicidal inklings. Same with those survivors who were in poor health or who had cancer-related pain or treatment-related chronic conditions. “Our findings underscore the importance of recognizing the connection between childhood cancer survivor’s physical health and their risk for suicidal thoughts,” says Christopher Recklitis, PhD, the study’s lead author and a psychologist at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.