It’s music to the ear of any cancer patient: “Your scans are clear.” It means you’ve won, and the treatments you’ve endured have driven cancer from your body.
But once you hear those four magic words, are you also free of the need for future scans? There’s an argument to be made that continued scanning or surveillance imaging is a good thing. After all, if you have a relapse, you want to detect it as early as possible.
But that argument may not hold up in the face of data. Continued imaging can be expensive, can expose survivors to additional radiation, can have false positive results leading to additional worry and unnecessary medical care, and may not be any better at detecting tumor relapses than a physical exam or simply a survivor’s feeling that something is “wrong.”
Stephan Voss, MD, PhD, the director of Nuclear Medicine and Molecular Imaging and chief of Oncologic Imaging at Boston Children’s Hospital, decided to crunch the numbers, using Hodgkin lymphoma (HL) as a model for testing whether post-treatment surveillance with computed tomography (CT) scans makes clinical sense. His conclusion: not really.
“The conventional wisdom is that early detection of relapse means that we spare the patient side effects and poorer outcomes,” Voss says, referring to the belief that HL survivors should have a follow-up CT scan every year for up to five years after treatment. “But with Hodgkin disease, that’s not the case.” …
Our success at treating children with cancer has steadily improved in the 40 years since President Nixon announced the War on Cancer. At the time, 3 in 10 children survived a diagnosis of cancer; now upwards of 8 in 10 do. The U.S. alone is home to an estimated 328,000 childhood cancer survivors today.
But as these survivors age, they can experience late effects, long-term medical complications of the very treatments that saved their lives. In fact, 30 years out, survivors are at more risk of dying from treatment-related illness than from cancer recurrence.
Perhaps the most insidious late effect – and the leading cause of non-cancer death at the 30-year mark – is cardiovascular disease.
Treatment-related heart damage can take decades to appear. This long latency means that a woman treated for cancer at age 6 could face a heart attack when she’s 36. And she might never see it coming. “A survivor can walk around for years with minimal symptoms while their cardiovascular disease silently progresses,” says Ming Hui Chen, an adult cardiologist at Children’s Hospital Boston. …