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YOUR HEALTH: Lessening the impact of childhood cancer treatments

New research looks at ways to lessen long-term health effects of life-saving treatments

INDIANAPOLIS — Every year in the United States, there are more than 15,000 children under 19 who are diagnosed with cancer.

The good news is that there are as many as 240,000 survivors of childhood cancer.

Kids with cancer now have an 84% chance of surviving five years or more thanks to advancements in treatments. 

But those life-saving therapies often have long-lasting consequences.

"They have a higher rate of chronic conditions like Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, just that premature aging things, things that we normally wouldn't expect to see," said Melissa Sherman, a research assistant at the Regenstrief Institute at Indiana University.

More than 60% of long-term survivors have at least one chronic health condition after childhood cancer treatment, and more than one-quarter have a severe or life-threatening condition.

Sherman and her colleagues are studying the impact of a specialized exercise program on cancer survivors between the ages of 15 and 39 who had at least three months of chemotherapy. 

Participants are undergoing a supervised 12-week program of cardiovascular exercise, stretching and strength training. 

Researchers are measuring the impact of the exercise on balance, heart health, sleep, and fatigue.

"Muscular strength is improving, cardiovascular fitness level, or even being able to do small things like walk up the stairs," Sherman noted.

Researchers are also measuring the impact of exercise on survivor's mental health. 

Sherman says the benefits of exercise on cancer patients have been well-documented in older adults, but this is one of the first times scientists are measuring the benefits in adolescents and young adults.

"There are a lot of developmental things going on both physically and mentally that treatments affect," she said.

"Exercise has been shown to lessen the side effects and risks as far as Type 2 diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular disease. So just overall, exercise is a real form of medicine for children cancer survivors."

If this story has impacted your life or prompted you or someone you know to seek or change treatments, please let us know by contacting Jim Mertens at jim.meretns@wqad.com or Marjorie Bekaert Thomas at mthomas@ivanhoe.com.