Relationships and Cancer Survivorship
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By Mitzi Baker

An Emotional Toll

Support can help mitigate cancer’s long-term effects on survivors

By Mitzi Baker


A cancer diagnosis affects the body, mind and spirit in ways that we are only beginning to understand. That’s the take-away message from two recent studies that investigated the impact that cancer can have on personal relationships.

The first study, published in the October 2009 Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention, found that pediatric cancer survivors are less likely to get married than other adults. The second, published in the Nov. 1, 2009, Cancer, reported that individuals who are going through a breakup at the time of their diagnosis and treatment are less likely to survive five or 10 years than those who are married.

Experts say although the reason this might be the case is far from clear, both studies serve as a much-needed wake-up call for actions that can mitigate the long-term effects of a cancer diagnosis and treatment on people’s emotional health.

In the pediatric cancer study, researchers found brain tumor survivors and those who were treated with cranial radiation were the most likely of the pediatric childhood cancer survivors to experience growth impairment and problems with memory, organization and efficiency. The study authors concluded that these difficulties were evidence that survivors are more “vulnerable to emotional and medical problems that could impact their ability as adults to do everything they may dream about doing,” including getting married, says lead author Nina Kadan-Lottick, a pediatric oncologist at the Yale School of Medicine in New Haven, Conn. “The practical advice I would take from this is that we, as clinicians, and family members need to make sure that survivors of pediatric cancer are getting follow-up care.”

Kevin R. Krull, a neuropsychologist at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn., agrees. Some research, he explains, suggests early intervention—even during treatment—to get kids physically and mentally active may lessen some of the long-term consequences. Instead of letting kids sit on the couch and watch TV, says Krull, a co-author of the childhood survivor study, parents should encourage social interaction.

Addressing psychosocial concerns may also help pediatric survivors cope. “It’s been my experience that cancer survivors who get counseling either by a psychologist or a social worker to work on social skills really benefit from them,” says Kadan-Lottick. “Therapy can help survivors learn how to connect with other people despite the residual physical and emotional effects of cancer and its treatment.”



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