Researcher Spotlight: Conquering Cancer With Dr. Effinger

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There are a lot more survivors of childhood cancer than there used to be, and that alone is amazing. But now we need to study these patients long-term.
— Karen Effinger, MD, MS

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When it comes to pediatric cancer, there are so many signs of hope, starting with the fact that the childhood cancer 5-year survival rate has climbed all the way up to 83%.

But while we celebrate the victories of all these children over cancer, little is known about the long-term health effects, chronic medical conditions, and any associated social consequences affecting these survivors through adulthood.

If you had cancer as a child, are you more likely to have chronic illnesses as an adult? Can it impact your likelihood of getting married or obtaining a job? If so, what can be done?

Karen Effinger, MD, MS, Assistant Professor of Pediatrics in the Oncology Department at Emory University/Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, was curious about the lack of answers to these questions.

“There are a lot more survivors of childhood cancer than there used to be, and that alone is amazing,” said Dr. Effinger. “But now we need to study these patients long-term. We need to find out if there is anything we can do to help them not just have a life, but enjoy meaningful quality of life well into old age.”

The Conquer Cancer Foundation was proud to support Dr. Effinger with a Young Investigator Award to help her examine this compelling research idea. Today, thanks to Dr. Effinger and her team, we now know more about childhood cancer survivors than ever before.

“We had a really interesting outcome,” noted Dr. Effinger. “About 12% of survivors still had cancer-related pain 5 years after their treatment ended, and things did not get better as the children grew into adults. Survivors had generally worse mental health. They also had lower chances of being married, graduating from college, having stable employment, or [having] a high income.”

With this new study, Dr. Effinger believes her colleagues in the cancer community will be able to introduce regular screenings and early interventions with these young patients to set them up for healthy, productive lives well after their cancer first goes into remission.

“We’re seeing if we can introduce more physical and occupational therapy to support them very early on after treatment,” said Dr. Effinger.

Without the support of her Young Investigator Award, Dr. Effinger explained, her study would have been much more difficult to conduct.

“Having these opportunities to dedicate time to scientific inquiry and help your research grow, especially in this tight-funding environment we are in, is really important.” ■

Originally printed in ASCO Connection.
© American Society of Clinical Oncology. “Researcher Spotlight: Conquering Cancer With Dr. Effinger.” ASCO Connection, September 2016. All rights reserved.