childhood cancer

Does Treating Childhood Cancer Actually Cause Cancer?

An unfortunate irony about cancer is that sometimes—though definitely not very often—the treatment can cause another cancer later on. This is called a second cancer.

We have to cure the cancer that the child has, and often the only way to do that is to give her chemotherapy. We know that if we don’t give her chemotherapy, then the cancer will not go away.

So, while there is a small risk of her getting a second cancer, we’ll never know whether she may get it if we don’t give her the chemotherapy to start with.

While we always try to use the treatment regimen with the least amount of side effects and the best outcomes, late effects are still a possibility.

What Are Late Effects?

Childhood cancer patients can have health issues—called late effects—that come up after treatment has ended. Sometimes, these problems happen in a matter of months. Other times, it can be years later, says the National Cancer Institute.

One of the late effects that survivors of pediatric cancer may come up against is a second cancer.

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What Is A Second Cancer?

A relapse, or recurrence, may occur if some of the original cancer cells survive treatment, says CureSearch For Children’s Cancer.

As far as getting a different second cancer from their therapy is concerned, it’s due to the type of treatment we use, not the type of cancer that they have.

Why Are Second Cancers A Late Effect Of Childhood Cancer?

Many cancer treatments cause cell damage. The goal is cell death, but the treatments can cause damage to the cells instead, which could lead to cancer later on.

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Chemotherapy

Certain chemotherapies can increase the risk of leukemia. This is a pretty rare occurrence, and if it’s going to happen, it usually will develop within the first 10 years after treatment, reports CureSearch.

Radiation

Any time someone gets radiation, that can increase the risk of a second cancer. Radiation tends to increase the risk over time for solid tumors, such as cancers in the breasts or bones.

Skin cancer is also one of the more common second cancers in childhood cancer survivors who were treated with radiation, explains CureSearch.

As with chemo, these second cancers tend to develop in that 10-year window after treatment, according to CureSearch.

Genes And Family History

There is a small number of people—less than one in 10 cancer patients—who are at risk for a second cancer based on heredity, says CureSearch. People who have this kind of risk usually see cancer in every generation in their family.

Can Childhood Cancer Survivors Reduce Their Risk Of Getting A Second Cancer?

There are a number of steps parents and childhood cancer survivors can take to stay on top of the child’s health over the long term.

Keep Records Of Everything.

Parents can start the follow-up care process by keeping detailed records of their child’s treatment, says the American Cancer Society.

This information can then be shared with doctors later on to help determine if any tests should be conducted to monitor for a second cancer.

Schedule A Yearly Follow-Up Exam.

Childhood cancer survivors should have a follow-up exam at least once per year, recommends the National Cancer Institute.

Make sure the appointment is with a physician familiar with late effects in cancer survivors, such as your oncologist.

Get Screened.

Childhood cancer survivors may benefit from early—or frequent—screenings for second cancers, says CureSearch. Talk to your oncologist about what screenings may be appropriate for your child.

Report Unusual Symptoms.

Reach out to your child’s physician if he develops any new symptoms, including:

  • Unexplained bruising or bleeding
  • Excessive fatigue
  • Bone pain
  • Changes in moles
  • Sores that won’t heal
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Continual stomach pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Coughing or hoarseness
  • Continual headaches
  • Changes in vision

Long-term follow-up care is so important for childhood cancer survivors. While it won’t necessarily prevent a second cancer from developing, it can help detect any health issues that may arise and treat them before they become huge problems.

Jill Beck
I've been an oncologist since 2010. With pediatric oncology, you get continuity of care with families—so you care for children when they're really sick and see them get better.

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