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Long-term follow-up and issues

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Cancer and its treatment can affect people long after the treatment has finished. Because more and more people survive their childhood cancer, more people are living with the long-term effects of cancer treatments. Health problems as a result of treatment that can occur months or even years afterwards are called ‘late effects’.

Late effects

Depending on your child’s age when they were diagnosed and the type of cancer and treatments they had, some long-term issues need to be monitored throughout their life:

  • Heart and lung problems – some chemotherapy and radiation therapy can cause heart or lung problems that will need to be regularly monitored.
  • Physical development – some chemotherapy and radiation therapy may have effects on the development of bone, teeth or the digestive system, or may impact upon hearing and vision.
  • Learning problems – some cancer treatments can affect long-term learning capabilities. Some children may need special attention to help them keep up with their peers in school.
  • Social issues – your child’s social skills may not be as developed as other children their age, especially if they had lots of time off school.
  • Sexual development and fertility issues – some treatments, such as chemotherapy, radiation therapy and surgery, can affect a child’s sexual organs. This may result in delays or differences in sexual development, or infertility.
  • Second cancers - some treatments for cancer can actually increase the chances of developing a different type of cancer later in life. These are called second cancers. It is essential that cancer survivors continue to monitor their health with regular visits and follow-up tests throughout their life.

These potential problems may have been discussed with you when your child’s doctor was explaining treatment options (see How is cancer treated?). The benefit of treatment usually outweighs these risks. However, some of these problems may need to be addressed for a long time, perhaps for the rest of your child’s life.

It is important to keep a record of the treatments your child went through. They will need this information throughout their life, so doctors know their complete medical history when assessing them for health conditions now and in adulthood.

Staying healthy

Because cancer survivors are at risk of some late effects, staying healthy becomes even more important. Taking good care of your child can help decrease the severity of some late effects.

Making positive lifestyle changes now will benefit your child in the long term, as well as you and the rest of your family. These may include: 

  • eating a healthy diet
  • getting regular exercise
  • decreasing alcohol intake
  • stopping smoking and any illicit drug use
  • ensuring sun protection.

Making these types of behavioural changes will set a positive example for your family, and help them all develop good health habits for the future. If you have any questions about how to do this, ask your doctor or see Cancer Australia’s Healthy living page.

published: Sunday, 23 August, 2015