Young cancer patients may have special education needs: study

Children who survive brain tumours are far more likely than their schoolmates to have learning difficulties that make getting an education a challenge for them, a new study suggests.

TORONTO — Children who survive brain tumours are far more likely than their schoolmates to have learning difficulties that make getting an education a challenge for them, a new study suggests.

The work, based on study of childhood cancer survivors from British Columbia, shows that in particular, kids who have undergone radiation treatment for brain tumours have significant reductions in scores on standardized tests for reading and math.

“What we hope to come out as a result of this study is a greater awareness among parents and the school system that childhood cancer survivors, particularly brain tumour survivors, are a group at risk for learning difficulties that probably need screening,” said Mary McBride, senior author of the study and a research scientist at the B.C. Cancer Agency.

There is good news in the work, which was published in the journal Cancer and was funded by the Canadian Cancer Society.

Children who survived other types of cancer — leukemia and lymphoma, for instance — did not appear to have more learning difficulties than their classmates.

“And that should be reassuring to parents,” McBride said.

Advances in cancer treatments mean that an increasing portion of children who are diagnosed with cancer are surviving — a change from years past where the vast majority succumbed to their cancers.

These days about 80 per cent of childhood cancer patients will live at least five years, the standard measure of survival for cancer.

But as the numbers of childhood cancer survivors grow and as those patients age, it is also becoming increasingly clear that their victories can come at a cost.

Research is revealing these people face a variety of health issues as they move on in life.

McBride and her colleagues have been studying this issue with funding from the Canadian Cancer Society.

And in this study, they wanted to see what, if any, toll cancer or the treatments needed to battle it have on the learning capacity of young cancer patients.

So they looked at how 782 cancer survivors in British Columbia performed on tests known as the Foundation Skills Assessment or FSA, tests that 95 per cent of B.C. students take in Grades 4, 7 and 10. The FSA test for competency in reading, writing and numeracy.

They compared the test results for the childhood cancer survivors to those of children who hadn’t had cancer.

Kids who had had radiation had scores that were between 20 per cent and 80 per cent of those of children didn’t have cancer, McBride said from Vancouver.

“It’s a very dramatic result.”

The effect was more pronounced in children who began cancer treatments earlier than in those who began around the age of 15, the researchers found.

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