Childhood Cancers: Long-Term Effects of Treatment
All medical treatments have both benefits and potential harms. This may be more true for cancer treatments than for other medical therapies. Some cancer treatments have late effects even after they have led to a cure. This is especially true for childhood brain cancer and leukemia. Now that childhood cancer survivors are living longer, researchers are beginning to learn more about the possible long-term (late) effects of childhood cancer treatments.
Your child’s doctor will make every effort to select treatments that will minimize future risks, as well as discuss what you and your child can expect. This article will acquaint you with some topics that might come up in such a discussion. It is important to keep the possible late effects of cancer treatment in perspective.
Late Effects of Treatment
In most cases, cancer treatment involves surgery, and/or chemo- or radiation therapy. For some cancers, treatment may also include a stem cell transplant. Radiation therapy uses high-energy rays to kill or shrink cancer cells, while chemotherapy uses one or more drugs. A stem cell transplant replaces damaged stem cells in the bone marrow with new ones from a donor. The stem cells will produce healthy red and white blood cells, and platelets. Late effects from chemo- and radiation therapy include second cancers and fertility problems. If a stem cell transplant was needed in addition to other treatments, some late effects can be more severe.
Children who have been successfully treated for childhood cancer face a small but increased risk of developing a second cancer—of an entirely different kind—during their lifetime. Scientists still don’t completely understand second cancers and they currently have no way of predicting which children are susceptible and which children are not. This risk may diminish in the future as doctors use new cancer treatments specifically designed to minimize the development of second cancers.
For the Survivor
While most childhood cancer survivors are able to have children, fertility problems can still occur due to cancer treatment. Chemo- and radiation therapy affect pregnancy rates more than other treatments. Treatment may lower sperm count in boys, while ova may be affected in girls. Males are more likely to have fertility problems. Your child's age during treatment may also have an effect. For example, boys who have not reached puberty are less likely to be affected by fertility issues than boys who have.
If your child has gone through puberty and is facing cancer treatment, there are ways to preserve fertility in advance. For boys this may include sperm banking, the process of collecting and freezing sperm samples for the future, and organ shielding during radiation treatment. In girls, this may include egg freezing, hormone treatments, organ-saving surgical procedures, and organ shielding. Cancer treatments can also delay puberty in both boys and girls.
Your child's doctor can advise you whether your child’s treatment has a significant chance of affecting fertility. However, if any genetic material from testicular or ovarian tissue is damaged, the risk of abnormalities with your children may be higher.
For the Survivor's Offspring
In general, children born to survivors of childhood cancer are not affected by their parent’s history of cancer treatment.
It is important to discuss options before your child starts treatment.
Late Effects Associated With Brain Cancer
Reducing the complications of treatment for brain cancer, which often involves surgical removal of a tumor followed by radiation therapy to the brain and/or spinal column, remains a serious challenge for children, parents, and doctors. While treatment breakthroughs are anticipated, complications after current treatments of brain cancer are both more frequent and more troublesome than with many other cancers. Be sure to have your child’s doctor explain the kinds of complications that may be expected following treatment for brain cancer and the efforts that will be made to minimize them. Some of the late effects that do occur after treatment for brain cancer include:
- Changes in behavior and school performance
- Changes in growth rate and sexual maturation
- Endocrine problems, which can create hormone imbalances
As mentioned above, survivors of brain cancer usually experience trouble with school performance. Children who undergo chemotherapeutic treatment for leukemia or other cancers may also experience neurocognitive problems. You may notice your child having trouble with learning, paying attention, or keeping up with classmates.
As doctors become more aware of the potential for neurocognitive problems, they are taking steps to identify children who may be affected, and to make sure they receive appropriate educational support. Early identification and support can help your child cope with and overcome these challenges.
In addition, some medical treatment centers are developing techniques to deliver radiation therapy that aim to minimize or even eliminate late effects in children with brain cancer, without compromising the effectiveness of treatment.
Emotional Effects of Cancer and Cancer Treatment
In today’s cancer centers for children, doctors and nurses make efforts to reduce the pain and fear associated with cancer. Despite these efforts, cancer is a frightening disease, and its treatment is rarely without some discomfort. Despite the best medical and nursing care, some survivors of childhood cancer find that memories and anxiety associated with cancer keep intruding into their lives, even years after treatment is finished. When fears and memories return frequently and intensely, psychologists may make a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD may even occur in some children who are cured of cancer.
In an effort to help your child from developing PTSD, the oncology staff will likely want to talk with your child about their feelings. Many centers use play therapy so that younger children can express feelings of fear or anxiety. If you find your child continues to worry about cancer or to have disturbing memories or dreams about the treatment process, talk with your doctor about getting psychological help, which may prevent the late development of PTSD.
Cancer and Hope
Today, cure is a realistic outcome for most children with cancer, and with more awareness about late effects of treatment, you and your child will be better prepared to handle them if they arise. Even though worrying about future complications is understandable, these concerns should not take precedence over potentially curative treatment decisions. Be sure, however, to ask questions about long-term risks and how they can be minimized. Keep precise records of what treatments your child received and when. And find a doctor that is capable of creating a trusting, long-term relationship with your child. Your child will need to depend on someone other than you when facing the challenges that lie ahead.
American Cancer Society
National Cancer Institute
Canadian Cancer Society
Cancer Care Ontario
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Last reviewed October 2017 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Michael Woods, MD, FAAP Last Updated: 12/7/2015