Cancer and cancer treatments can be traumatic and life changing on its own, and side effects of cancer therapies can leave lasting scars and pain. Among survivors of childhood cancer especially, the long term effects can be felt well into adulthood.

Many curative therapies for childhood cancers allow those children to live into adulthood. However, those adults are at greater risk for health issues and those risks increase with age. Determination of the health of cancer survivors and the prevalence of issues caused by treatments are important diagnostic tools to improve the health of those survivors, but also to improve treatments for children who may be diagnosed with cancer in the future.

Dr. Melissa M. Hudson of St. Jude Children's Research Hospital and the University of Tennessee College of Medicine and colleagues conducted a study to determine the general health status of long-term survivors of childhood cancer and the pervasiveness chronic ailments related to cancer treatment. The study was done as a part of a St. Jude lifetime study, which included 1,713 participants over the age of 18 who had survived cancer for at least 10 years and were diagnosed and treated between 1962 and 2001. The study occurred from 2007 to 2012.

The study found the most deleterious effects in the organs of the heart, brain, lungs, hearing, and reproductive systems of the survivors. Major organ dysfunction is very common among survivors. Among all participants, 65 percent had abnormal lung function and 74 percent of those who receivee radiation treatments to their lungs had lung issues. Sixty-two percent of survivors experienced nervous system abnormalities as well as hearing loss, and 48 percent of those who had received treatments directly to their brains had cognitive abnormalities. The prevalence of chronic issues amid survivors is difficult to ignore. Disorders of liver, kidney, and skeletal systems were lower among the survivors compared to other disorders, at around 20 percent.

This study suggests that there are many adverse outcomes experienced by cancer survival. Among patients surveyed, 98 percent has at least one chronic illness, and 68 percent had a severe, disabling or life-threatening condition. Total frequency of any chronic health condition by age 45 was 95 percent and there is a 93.5 percent likelihood of the development of a chronic ailment 35 years after cancer diagnosis

Often, the ailments the effect survivors are brought on by treatments endured to rid their body of cancer. These treatments include chemotherapy and radiation. The American Cancer Society claims that children can handle the immediate side effects of chemotherapy better than adults can with similar diagnoses.

Chemotherapy is best explained as the use of drugs to slow the growth of cancerous cells, keep cancer from spreading, and kill it where it has formed. Since these drugs are so powerful, they can alter the function of normal cells as well, leading to side effects like nausea, but also long term effects like vision loss or diabetes. Radiation works by sending large amounts of energy into a targeted cancerous tumor. This helps to kill cancerous cells, slow its growth, and prevent recurrence. The drawback of this therapy is also its effect on healthy cells that can cause similar long term and short term effects as chemotherapy does.

This finding highlights the need for clinically focused monitoring, both for conditions with significant morbidity, such as recurrence of the cancer and heart disease, and also for those that, if remediated, can improve quality of life, such as those effecting the lungs, hearing and brain function.

Source: Hudson MM, Ness KK, Gurney JG, et al. Clinical Ascertainment of Health Outcomes Among Adults Treated for Childhood Cancer. JAMA. 2013.