Cancer survivors can be at risk for learning disabilities

According to the American Cancer Society, more than 80 percent of children with cancer now survive five years or more thanks to major treatment advancements. As more kids who had childhood cancer grow up, doctors and researchers are learning more about side effects that can happen months or years down the road. Learning disabilities and developmental delays are among the possible late effects of cancer treatment.

Risks for learning disabilities are unique to the child’s experience. Cancer type, treatments and doses, as well as the child’s age, all play a role, according to Christine E. Brady, Ph.D., assistant chief, Pediatric Psychology & Psychiatry Consultation and Liaison Service at Norton Children’s Hospital and the University of Louisville.

Children age 5 and younger are more likely to develop developmental delays after treatment. Children who receive radiation to the head, neck or spinal cord; total body radiation; or chemotherapy delivered into the spine or brain are more likely to experience learning disabilities. Chemotherapy is more likely to affect the working memory and processing speed of the brain, as well as intelligence related to social skills, problem-solving, planning and organizing.

Can you prevent these side effects?

Norton Children’s Cancer Institute

  • Treatment and support services that are mindful of potential side effects, such as learning disabilities, as childhood cancer survivors grow and age.
  • Survivorship programs that help children and families as they experience new life stages together.
  • Kentucky’s only Adolescent and Young Adult Program and Transition Clinic so that children can receive care suited for their age.

Children can fall behind in school after a cancer diagnosis. Continuing education while in treatment may give children a sense of normalcy and help with positive thinking and self-worth. Puzzles, math games, reading, tutoring, hospital or home schooling, extra homework and educational apps are all great ways to keep kids engaged with their education.

Dr. Brady’s tips for spotting issues in your child


Talk with teachers

  • Is your child falling behind in a particular subject or in all classes?
  • Do they have a hard time paying attention? Does the teacher need to redirect your child often?
  • Is your child performing at the grade level for their age?


Look for signs

  • Look at your child’s handwriting. Is it easy to read, or does it seem different?
  • Do you have any trouble getting your child to sit down and focus on homework or studying?
  • Does your child have to read things several times?


How to get help

Talk with your child’s doctor about what you are noticing, and consider alerting the school to have your child tested for IQ and academic achievement.



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