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Childhood Cancer Caused by Infection

A common infection could be the cause of the mysterious brain and lymphatic cancers that kill young children. Scientists have discovered that childhood cancer cases cluster together in a way that suggests that this is the origin. And how do adults who survived childhood cancer feel about their lives today?

Caroline Ryan writes in BBC News Online that researchers who studied childhood cancer rates in England for the last 50 years say the disease patterns can't be explained by chance. They found that cases of lymphatic cancer and brain tumors occurred in the same areas and time periods much more frequently than they would have expected. Children born within a year of each other and living within a few miles of one another when they were born were much more likely to come down with these diseases.

Most of the clusters were too small to have been noticed before?usually around 3 or 4 cases?but the frequency of these cases was unusual. "We found something that's not random, that isn't likely to be a chance occurrence. It's the first time we've found these clusters so the big step forward is that it points to a common factor between these cancers," says researcher Richard McNally. "We would infer that it's to do with something sporadic, some sort of occasional environmental exposure. The obvious cause would be infections, which come and go in waves. It could be that these cancers result as a rare consequence of exposure to certain infections."

How do childhood cancer survivors do in adulthood? Almost 44% of 9,535 survivors who were studied had at least one significant health problem related to their cancer, including amputations, organ damage or stress due to worries about a recurrence of the cancer. "The cancer therapy that did a good job of killing the cancer cells also can affect those developing cells and tissues in ways that we may not recognize until 20 or 30 years later," says Dr. Kevin Oeffinger.

The study participants were diagnosed between 1970 and 1986. "They realize that they're pioneers," Oeffinger says. "People treated in the '50s and '60s did not have the chance of making it into their adult life."

Kelly Wood is a survivor who is now 29 and has a 2-year-old son. She was diagnosed with leukemia at age 2 and had three years of radiation and chemotherapy, which left her heart muscle weak and damaged her lungs and thyroid gland. She takes medicine for these conditions, but says, "I'm doing pretty good. I went to school and did everything that everybody else did." She's thankful the treatment didn't leave her infertile, which sometimes happens.

17% of patients reported mental health problems, 13% reported anxiety and 12% reported impairments in daily functioning, partly caused by amputations. The percentages were higher for cancers requiring aggressive or invasive treatment. Doctors now know that some types of cancer, such as Hodgkin's disease, require less radiation than previously thought. Dr. Melissa Hudson says, "Some of these patients by today's standards were probably overtreated."

We all love our children so much?even the troublesome ones.

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