Correction to This Article
An Oct. 22 Metro article incorrectly described a weekend conference at Georgetown University as the first in the region for childhood cancer survivors to discuss treatment issues. In July, a conference in Northern Virginia addressed the topic.

Perils Follow Childhood Cancer

Danielle Eichner had cancer at age 11.
Danielle Eichner had cancer at age 11. "You've got to sort of work with what you've got now," she says of health risks. (By Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)
By Susan Levine
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 22, 2006

Danielle Eichner of Rockville is a survivor. A decade ago, when she was 11, doctors diagnosed her with acute leukemia and warned that death was imminent. But chemotherapy kept her alive. She graduated from high school, is attending college and soon will launch a career as an art therapist.

Only now, after a landmark study of childhood cancer survivors, are Eichner and her parents realizing how the drugs and radiation that saved her life might affect her in the future.

The study concluded that many young adults who conquered cancer as children suffer chronic health issues more commonly seen in the elderly, including osteoporosis, hearing loss, thyroid problems and heart damage. More than one in four have potentially life-threatening conditions.

"They had to grow up so fast," said Danielle's mother, Marilyn Eichner. "And then to tell them, 'Oh, by the way, you survived, but you might get a second cancer, you might have heart failure, you might have to have a hip replacement' -- it's just too much."

The research findings, drawn from the reports of nearly 10,400 people whose cancers were diagnosed between 1970 and 1986, alter the context of a stunning medical success over the past 35 years -- a period when children's survival rates from cancer went from virtually zero to nearly 80 percent.

Despite drugs that are less toxic and technology that can precisely target malignant masses, youngsters and teenagers currently in treatment are likely to confront the same concerns, experts say.

"I don't feel I can give them a lot of comfort," said Max Coppes, executive director of the Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders at Children's Hospital. "This fine line [between a cure and its possible side effect] is infinitely more painful and difficult."

The Childhood Cancer Survivor Study has prompted many survivors and their families to reconsider what the future holds, some with equanimity, others with sadness, fear or denial.

Danielle Eichner, now a senior at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, is sanguine about what may happen.

"I know there's a lot out there," she said. "But I don't look at it like, oh my gosh, what did they do to me? What do I have to look forward to? I didn't really have any option. . . . You've got to sort of work with what you've got now."

She and her mother are speaking this weekend at a conference at Georgetown University, the first in the Washington region to bring survivors together to focus on the late effects of cancer. A key theme is how individuals should be well-versed in their past treatment so they can advocate for vigilant future care. After the study appeared in the Oct. 12 New England Journal of Medicine, registration for the conference tripled.

Aziza Shad, chief of the pediatric hematology/oncology division at Georgetown University Hospital and director of its Lombardi Cancer Center survivor program, fielded calls from former patients. "What's the point?" one woman asked in despair.

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