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Certain Treatments for Childhood Cancer May Increase Obesity Risk Later in Life

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Key Points

  • Of childhood cancer survivors who had received cranial radiation, 47% were obese at least 10 years after their initial diagnosis, compared with 29% of survivors who had not received cranial radiation.
  • Receiving glucocorticoids or a younger age at diagnosis also contributed to increased rates of obesity.
  • Researchers say the next step is characterizing molecular pathways involved in the link between childhood cancer treatment and obesity.

Individuals who had cancer as a child may be at increased risk of being obese due to the therapies they received during their youth. The finding comes from a new study published early by Wilson et al in Cancer. The study’s results suggest the need for effective counseling and weight loss interventions for certain childhood cancer survivors.

Previous research has shown that obesity rates are elevated in childhood cancer survivors who were exposed to cranial radiation. A team led by Carmen Wilson, PhD, and Kirsten Ness, PhD, of St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, designed a study to estimate the prevalence of obesity among childhood cancer survivors and to identify the clinical and treatment-related risks for obesity in these individuals. The study also looked for potential genetic factors that might play a role.

Study Findings

The study included 1,996 survivors previously treated for cancer at St. Jude who had been diagnosed with cancer at least 10 years ago. The researchers found that 47% of survivors who had received cranial radiation were obese, compared with 29% of survivors who had not received cranial radiation. The likelihood of obesity increased among survivors treated with cranial radiation who had also received glucocorticoids or who were younger at the time of diagnosis. Also, certain variants in genes involved with neurons' growth, repair, and connectivity were linked with obesity among survivors treated with cranial radiation. Survivors who had been treated with chest, abdominal, or pelvic radiation were half as likely to be obese as those who did not receive these treatments.

Dr. Wilson noted that the findings may help identify cancer survivors who are most likely to become obese and could provide a foundation for future research efforts aimed at characterizing molecular pathways involved in the link between childhood cancer treatment and obesity. “Also, the ability to identify patients at increased risk may guide selection of therapeutic protocols that will maximize treatment outcomes while simultaneously minimizing the risk of long-term complications among children diagnosed with cancer,” said Dr. Ness.

Dr. Ness is the corresponding author of the Cancer article.

The content in this post has not been reviewed by the American Society of Clinical Oncology, Inc. (ASCO®) and does not necessarily reflect the ideas and opinions of ASCO®.


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