How Cancer Treatments Affect the Rest of Your Life

Beth Brophy Health Guide October 13, 2006
  • I’ve been mulling over a New York Times article about a new study that shows that childhood cancer survivors face a huge number of health problems later in life, caused by chemotherapy and radiation.

    The study follows more than 10,000 survivors, treated from 1970 to 1986. They had cancer before age 21, and when studied were 18 to 48. Their cancer-free siblings were also studied, from the ages of 18 to 56. For the cancer survivors, the price of their “cures” were high rates of heart disease, infertility, second cancers, joint problems and learning disorders. Women generally fared worse than men.

    Compared to their siblings, the survivors faced multiple health problems. Most of the survivors --62 percent--had severe, life-threatening or disabling illnesses, compared to five percent in the sibling group.

    In the years since those patients were treated, there have been changes in medical protocols to lessen future ailments. For example, in the 1990s, doctors realized that high doses of radiation to the chest, used to treat Hodgkin’s disease in children, could predispose girls to breast cancer. Irradiating girls’ breasts is avoided, and patients are advised to have more screening exams--using MRIs, not mammograms, which are another form of radiation.
    And as the article points out, all of the illnesses that came down the road for these cancer patients are a result of success. These patients lived, which was the main goal of their treatments. The mortality rates for childhood cancers are down dramatically—nearly 80 percent of children and teenagers with cancer live at least five years, and many are cured, versus few of them in the 1970s.

    This study seems to me to be a metaphor for life after cancer. Is your glass half empty or half full? You’re alive, which puts you in the lucky, glass is overflowing category. But often, as a result of the cancer treatment, you’re living with all sorts of problems you didn’t have before. With breast cancer, for example, you may be living without one or both of your breasts, no estrogen, which affects your fertility and your sexuality, bone loss, etc. So which are you going to dwell on: the problems that followed your cancer diagnosis or the fact that you’re alive? For me, I try to focus on the alive part, but sometimes it’s more of a challenge than others. What about you?