It seems unfair, but it has recently been proven – children who survive cancer in early childhood go on to be at a hugely increased risk of heart disease. A 20-year study by the Childhood Cancer Survivor Study has recently been completed, and it has found that those who survived child cancer were up to 10 times more likely to have atherosclerosis, 6 times more likely to have heart failure, and 5 times more likely to have a heart attack than those who had a cancer-free childhood.
The study compared childhood cancer survivors, from as wide a variety of cancers as Hodgkin’s disease, leukemia, brain tumors, kidney tumors, and lymphoma. It looked at the cancer survivors and their siblings, and found that, after 20 years, 2% of the cancer survivors had atherosclerosis, which was 10 times greater than their siblings, 4% of the survivors had congestive heart failure, which was 6 times the average in their siblings, and 5% of the survivors had a heart attack at some point, which was more than 5 times the number their siblings had. They were also found to have 6 times the number of cases of pericardial disease than their siblings, and 5 times the number of cases of valvular disease.
Even if the cancer survivors lead a healthier lifestyle, the increased risk still exists. They are said to be developing the sorts of disease that doctors normally only put on the radar for patients in their 40s and 50s. This means that cancer survivors need to be particularly aware of these risks, and let their doctors know their full medical history and the results of these findings, in order to help prevent any adverse effects from these heart diseases.
The reason that cancer survivors were fund to beat such a hugely increased risk of heart disease was because of the radiation and chemotherapy drugs used to treat the cancers. Radiation therapy kills off cancerous cells, and ‘largely’ leaves healthy tissue alone – but we all know that radiation can have varied and serious effects, and radiation therapy is no exception. One piece of good news with this though, is that as radiation therapy has been refined, it is now more targeted to the tumor and less likely to have adverse effects on the heart (unless, of course, the tumor is in close proximity to the heart).
Chemotherapy drugs are also touted as a cause of this increased risk of heart cancer in child cancer survivors. They have been found to damage the tissue of the heart – but unfortunately, as with radiation therapy, the techniques and drugs used today are largely the same as they were back in the 1970s, when the participants in this study were receiving their treatment.
The message of this article is not just doom and gloom for people who have already survived a great deal in their lives. It is important for these cancer survivors to realize that the impact of their childhood disease on their adult health can be reduced with regular checkups. Let your physician know that you are concerned about your heart health, and find out what tests you can regularly and safely undergo to screen you for early heart disease. You don’t necessarily need to see an oncologist for the rest of your life – just keep your GP informed. Maintain your healthy diet and lifestyle, and keep in constant contact with the medical profession – they have saved you before, they can do it again!