Twenty years ago, when she was 15, Ruth Rechis, PhD, was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma and received that era’s state-of-the-art chemotherapy and radiation at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis. Called mantle field therapy, the treatment exposed a wide area of her neck and chest to radiation. Now 35, Rechis and others like her find themselves at far higher risk of early breast cancer—up to 30 percent by age 50, compared with 4 percent in other women—as well as heart damage and other radiation aftereffects. “It can be a burden to keep explaining why I need a mammogram and an EKG that other women my age don’t,” says Rechis, director of research at the Livestrong Foundation.
When cancer occurs in children and teens, they face a lifetime risk of a second malignancy more than five times greater than their peers who had cancer-free childhoods. Part of the reason is simply time; once cured, childhood survivors have many more years to develop a second cancer than someone first diagnosed at age 50 or 60. But cancer treatment is also harsher on children’s developing bodies. Aggressive chemotherapy and radiation can damage growing tissues, so childhood survivors need special monitoring throughout their lives.
What you can do: Make sure your child gets a postcancer treatment plan, and share it with all her physicians. If you’re a childhood cancer survivor yourself, make sure you’re up-to-date on all recommended screenings. “If you were treated at a young age and aren’t sure of your risks, ask your doctor for recommendations, and find out whether you can do anything to prevent a second cancer or have it diagnosed earlier,” says Elizabeth Ward, PhD, vice president for intramural research at the American Cancer Society.
If you don’t know the details of your treatment history, contact the hospital where you were initially treated. Or seek help from one of the NCI-designated centers (cancercenters.cancer .gov) with survivorship programs. Download a guide (written for health professionals but available to the public) created by the Children’s Oncology Group at survivorshipguidelines.org.