For child cancer survivors, treatment comes at a cost

(CBS News) There are almost 400,000 survivors of childhood cancer in the United States and most are expected to live until adulthood. But toxic treatment comes with a price, including serious medical problems for most patients years down the road. Now the most comprehensive study of its kind has found that many problems go undetected.

At age 7, Marnie Golden was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkins lymphoma.

"The word cancer didn't scare me but the word chemo did," she recalled. "They were going to stick a needle in my veins and put chemicals in my body and make my hair fall out, but it would also kill the cancer cells."

After chemotherapy, radiation and a bone marrow transplant, her cancer was eradicated. But Golden, now 31 and an aspiring opera singer, has multiple health issues attributed to her treatment, including high cholesterol, thinning of the bones and an enlarged thyroid.

"You know going into the treatment that there's going to be side effects and every cancer patient is gonna have different side effects and I guess these are the side effects I got.

But these side effects can develop years later and a new study shows that for Golden and many others, the effects often go undetected. More than 1,700 adults, formerly patients at St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital, were monitored for complications of their therapy.

Two-thirds of patients had developed a chronic or life-threatening condition. Almost all of the heart problems, 90 percent, and more than half of the lung problems, 55 percent, had been missed until the study.

"Survivors of childhood cancer, once they graduate from pediatric programs, they're going into a community where medical providers are not going to be aware of their unique health risks," said Dr. Melissa Hudson, the study's co-author.

As for Marnie, she says "you don't think about taking care of yourself when you feel fine."

But she says her motivation for staying on top of her health is "knowing that if I don't take care of myself, I will never be able to reach my dreams."

  • Jonathan LaPook

    Dr. Jonathan LaPook is the medical correspondent for the CBS Evening News. Follow him on Twitter at @DrLaPook

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