Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Cancer Treatment Can Sometimes Cause Cancer

The two primary treatment methodologies for cancers – radiation and chemotherapy – are about as subtle as a sledgehammer. The goal of both treatments is to damage and thus to wipe out the rapidly-dividing cancer cells, but in the process they may also damage or kill normal cells undergoing growth and division. That’s why cancer patients lose their hair and feel nauseous after treatment; the treatments have damaged the cells of hair follicles and the cells that line the digestive tract.

It’s now known that sometimes chemotherapy and radiation can lead to additional cancers that are caused by the treatments themselves. That’s apparently what happened to Robin Roberts, the anchor of the “Good Morning America” show. Ms. Roberts received radiation and chemotherapy treatment in 2007 as part of her treatment for breast cancer. Now she’s been diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), a potentially fatal blood and bone marrow disease that used to be called proleukemia.

Ms. Roberts’ MDS is called a secondary cancer – either a new, different primary cancer that comes after a diagnosis of primary cancer, or (more commonly) a cancer that has spread from its primary site to other parts of the body. Ms. Roberts’ MDS is of the first type. Although it could have been just an unlucky unrelated event, statistically its much more likely to have been caused by her prior cancer treatment.

No doubt about it, chemotherapy and radiation therapy are hard on the body. But they’re getting better every year. Researchers are finding better ways to target cancer cells specifically, thereby sparing normal cells the damage that comes with traditional cancer therapy. Hopefully, that will reduce the number of secondary cancers caused by cancer therapy itself, like Ms’ Roberts’ MDS.

Ms. Roberts plans to have a bone marrow transplant sometime within the next two months. Her sister is likely to be the bone marrow donor, according to news reports.

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