Childhood Cancer Survivors Exercise Less, Increasing Diabetes Risk

Article ID: 556909

Released: 2-Oct-2009 1:00 PM EDT

Source Newsroom: St. Jude Children's Research Hospital

Newswise — In a study of adults who survived cancer as children, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital investigators found that many survivors lead sedentary lifestyles and are more likely to be less physically active than their siblings. Childhood cancer survivors are at greater risk of diabetes, obesity and heart disease than the rest of the population.

Cancer treatments such as cranial radiation can damage the hypothalamus and pituitary; the result is an abnormal metabolism, which increases the risk of obesity and diabetes. Also, chemotherapy with the drug anthracycline increases the risk of heart disease; and radiation to the body can cause blood vessels to become less pliant.

“Physical activity is a key step that survivors can take to reduce the health risk of these effects,” said Kiri Ness, Ph.D., of the Epidemiology and Cancer Control department at St. Jude. “Medical center programs to encourage physical activity in adult survivors could help significantly. However, one problem is that researchers have not firmly established the factors that affect cancer survivors’ participation in physical activity.”

To understand those factors, Ness and her colleagues drew data from the Childhood Cancer Survivor Study (CCSS), a St. Jude-led consortium of 30 centers in the United States and Canada. The study gathers extensive data from the participating centers on more than 20,000 childhood cancer survivors who received diagnoses between 1970 and 1986.

The researchers analyzed 9,301 CCSS participants’ answers to questions about their physical activity; as a comparison, the scientists also analyzed the same answers given by 2,886 siblings. The investigators compared those answers with information on physical activity obtained from a massive health survey database maintained by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Because of the cohort’s large size, the researchers explored the relationships between health and exercise in all the different types of cancer. Also, because the cohort is older, Ness and her colleagues were able to investigate adult behaviors and relate them back to the data on their childhood cancers.

“Thus, we could identify who has the highest risk of having an inactive lifestyle,” Ness said. “Knowing this makes it possible to begin to design interventions that will address the problems that put survivors at most risk.”

The researchers found that the cancer survivors showed significant deficits in physical activity compared to their siblings. Survivors were less likely than their siblings to meet physical activity guidelines and more likely to report inactive lifestyles.

“It was particularly striking that 23 percent of the survivors reported that they were completely inactive over the previous month, compared with 14 percent of their siblings,” Ness said.

The researchers’ analysis revealed that survivors of medulloblastoma, a type of brain tumor, and osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer, reported the most inactive lifestyles. Also associated with inactivity were treatments with cranial irradiation or amputation as well as other factors, including gender, race, age and education level. If survivors smoked, were underweight or obese or had suffered from depression, they were also prone to inactivity.

Ness hopes the findings will spark more research on the role of fitness in cancer survivors’ quality of life, as well as the design of facilities and programs to encourage good fitness in survivors.

“For instance, if we know that patients with medulloblastoma who received cranial irradiation are at a high risk for having inactive lifestyles as adults, we might design a rehabilitation program they can undergo while they are still children to encourage physical activity as they age,” she said.

Ness and her colleagues plan to investigate whether programs to encourage exercise in both children and adult childhood cancer survivors can help them avoid obesity, diabetes and other health problems.

St. Jude Children's Research HospitalSt. Jude Children's Research Hospital is internationally recognized for its pioneering work in finding cures and saving children with cancer and other catastrophic diseases. Founded by late entertainer Danny Thomas and based in Memphis, Tenn., St. Jude freely shares its discoveries with scientific and medical communities around the world. No family ever pays for treatments not covered by insurance, and families without insurance are never asked to pay. St. Jude is financially supported by ALSAC, its fundraising organization. For more information, please visit

Experts Available:

Kiri Ness, Ph.D., is an assistant member is the St. Jude Department of Epidemiology and Cancer Control. Ness’ research focuses on cancer survivors, working with children and adults, many of whom have chronic diseases as a result of the cancer or its treatment. Ness can offer expertise on topics such as clinical and population measurement of physical performance and disability; exercise and physical activity intervention for chronic disease in childhood; the impact of disability on quality of life and life satisfaction; and obesity and metabolic syndrome in long-term cancer survivors.

Les Robinson, Ph.D., is chair of the St. Jude Epidemiology and Cancer Control department and co-leader of the Cancer Prevention and Control Program at St. Jude, a multi-disciplinary team endeavor to conduct cancer-related research on outcomes and interventions among pediatric and adolescent populations. He is an expert on the epidemiology and etiology of childhood cancer; cancer survivorship; outcomes research and clinical trials in cancer prevention and control. Robinson is a principle investigator with the Childhood Cancer Survivor Study.


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