University of Pennsylvania Health System

Focus on Cancer

Friday, November 18, 2011

What Happens After You Survive Childhood Cancer?

Melanie Gaffney is a proud childhood cancer survivor, and a contributor to the Focus On Cancer blog.

Today she is cancer-free, but lives with the after effects of her cancer treatments.
In addition to being a mom and a wife, she operates a small marketing and graphic design boutique called Melanie Gaffney and also founded Mason’s Mission to raise awareness and funds for Chiari malformation research, a neurological disorder that affects her son. Read more about Melanie here.

Watch for Melanie’s blogs here, and connect with
Melanie on Twitter.

For survivors of childhood cancer, the great news is that you survived cancer. But is that the end? Is it really over? Can you stop focusing on your health all the time?

Depending on the type of cancer and the treatments you received, probably not.
There are about 350,000 childhood cancer survivors in the United States. As survivors age, they can experience late effects and long-term medical complications as a result of the treatments that saved their lives.

Today, because of advances in treatment, about 80 percent of children treated for cancer survive five years or more. But the treatments that saved your lives can also cause health problems that may not show up until years later.

In fact, 30 years out, survivors are at more risk of dying from treatment-related illness than from cancer recurrence . Because childhood cancer survivors are living longer, their long-term health and these late effects are issues for most of their lives. Childhood cancer survivors’ aftercare and watchfulness for late effects must be as specialized as the cancer treatments they received as children. Late effects may involve more than one part of the body and range from mild to severe.

The main factors that contribute to possible late side effects include the types of treatment you received, the drugs used in chemotherapy, and the amount and location of radiation and surgeries.

This is why it’s important to find a great primary care physician and a multidisciplinary survivorship program.

Below are some of the effects childhood cancer survivors may experience:
  • Bone density issues
  • Thyroid problems
  • Hearing loss
  • Vision problems
  • Dental problems
  • Lung, liver or kidney problems
  • Heart problems
  • Fertility issues
  • Second cancers
  • Emotional issues
  • Neurological issues
My Own Survivorship Journey
I didn’t realize I needed a survivorship program until my mid-twenties. I knew I had some physical limitations as a result of my childhood cancer, but I considered them to be minor. I was invincible! I truly believed that since I had beaten cancer, nothing else would ever happen to me. In some sense I felt I had paid my dues and could live like everyone else. This made sense to me as a teenager and sadly even into young adulthood. I ignored any and all signs that my body was telling me that I was, in fact, not invincible.

I was told that fertility and carrying a child may be an issue. Although I am sure other late side effects were probably mentioned when I was younger, these were the only two that I noted. So when I did get pregnant, to say I was totally shocked is an understatement. After the bliss and excitement of finding out I would have a baby came the rush of fear. My cancer came back to haunt me. The moment I remembered I wasn’t like everyone else was when I called my oncologist when most women are calling their obstetrician.

I was referred to the Living Well After Childhood Cancer Survivorship Program at the Abramson Cancer Center. After many tests, pokes and exams I received my first diagnosis of my late-term cancer treatment effects; heart disease (cardiomyopathy) due to chemotherapy, restrictive lung disease due to radiation therapy and an increased risk of breast cancer because of the amount and location of the radiation.

Like many survivors, I also faced some emotional issues like anxiety and dealing with the uncertainty that many cancer survivors deal with - the thought that my cancer may come back.
My life changed when I received my test results. Today, I try to spread knowledge and reach out to childhood cancer survivors about these late side effects. While fundraising for a cure and treatment is important, (without it there wouldn’t be survivors), there also has to be awareness and research to help support those survivors.

I am so excited to be attending the Stupid Cancer Boot Camp in Philadelphia on November. I can’t wait to listen to the speakers, learn more about survivorship and hopefully meet and share stories with other childhood cancer survivors.

The Abramson Cancer Center is part of the LIVESTRONG™ Survivorship Center of Excellence Network, a group of eight Comprehensive Cancer Centers that have been chosen to lead the effort across the country in clinical care and research with cancer survivors of all ages.

Learn more about the Living Well After Childhood Cancer Survivorship Program.

Learn about managing cancer treatment side effects.

Learn more about long-term follow-up guidelines for childhood cancer survivors.

2 comments:

  1. Great article! So proud of you for bringing awareness. We often don't think about the children {that are now adults} that had cancer. What a wonderful insight!

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