Grant supports study of long-term effects of cancer treatment in children

Childhood cancer patients are surviving in greater numbers but often suffer later complications related to their treatments. A grant from the St. Baldrick’s Foundation is enabling pediatric oncology fellow, Dr. Andrew Smitherman, to study how doctors can best care for survivors.

Grant supports study of long-term effects of cancer treatment in children click to enlarge Dr. Andrew Smitherman consults with Xander Pond and his mother, Angie, in UNC Hospitals’ pediatric hematology-oncology clinic.

Advances in treatment are enabling more children to survive their cancer diagnoses. The unfortunate downside is many of the estimated 400,000 survivors will find themselves back in the hospital at some point in the months and years following treatment due to complications from their earlier therapies.

The exact reasons why are under studied, but pediatric oncology fellow, Andrew Smitherman, MD, aims to change that at UNC. He is studying the reasons behind these return visits to the hospital to help determine whether medical science can prevent them or at least lessen their severity.

“About eight out of 10 children with cancer become long-term survivors,” says Dr. Smitherman. “Unfortunately, nearly two out of three of these individuals will eventually develop at least one medical complication associated with their prior cancer treatment. I saw a growing need for learning how to best care for survivors after they have completed their cancer therapy and decided this is where I want to invest my research career.”

The St. Baldrick’s Foundation sees promise in this research, as well, and recently awarded Dr. Smitherman a $117,064 grant to analyze how often survivors are seen in an emergency department or hospitalized in the first years following completion of treatment. He will also review which medications are prescribed during this time to better understand what medical complications survivors most frequently experience.

Dr. Andrew Smitherman. Click to enlarge.
With the majority of childhood cancer survivors experiencing at least one long-term medical complication from their former therapies, Smitherman says understanding these data is crucial to understanding the long-term effects of cancer treatment.

“Little is known about the degree to which these medical problems are emerging in the first years off therapy,” he says. “How often an individual is seen in an emergency department or hospitalized and what medications they are prescribed can give us an understanding of the severity of the medical problems they are experiencing.”

In discovering which issues are most common among childhood cancer survivors, Smitherman aims to ultimately improve patient care.

“If certain conditions are found to be common among survivors in the early years off therapy, this information might help improve our screening methods or delivery of cancer treatment,” he speculates. “By understanding the reasons for hospitalization and what prescriptions survivors are taking in the first few years after completing treatment, it’s not farfetched to hope we might learn to identify complications early and limit their progression or prevent them altogether.”