Kids' Cancer Treatment May Cause Development Delays
Credit: Cancer definition via Shutterstock

Infants and toddlers with cancer tend to experience delays in developmental milestones, according to a new study.

In the study, children treated for cancer before age 4 progressed more slowly in their development of vocabulary, cognitive functions such as attention and memory, and motor skills, such as crawling and walking, compared with children who had not had cancer.

The findings suggest childhood cancer patients may benefit from early interventions, such as physical or language therapy.

“In the early years, when children go through such tremendous growth, they arguably are more sensitive to biological and environmental influences than adults are,” said study researcher Marc Bornstein, of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Cancer treatment did not affect children's social and emotional development, their ability to respond to their parents or their ability to engage in make-believe play, the researchers said.

The study included 61 children between 6 months and 3 and a half years old who were being treated for cancer when they entered the study. 

The children were assessed in several areas of development, including: Their ability to understand language and to express themselves (for example, by identifying a toy by name); their abilities on tests of attention, memory, problem-solving; and their ability to sit up, crawl, walk, and make precise movements, such as using a spoon.

The cancer survivors did not score as well on tests of language, cognition and motor milestones as children who did not have cancer. Children with cancer scored about 7 points below average on tests of mental development, and 14 points below average on motor tests.

The earlier health care providers start addressing these concerns, the better, said study researcher Diane Putnick, University of Padova in Italy.

Early deficits can snowball and hinder improvement over time, Putnick said. For example, a child who finds language difficult may grow frustrated and stop trying to learn.

Caregivers often wait until the cancer is in remission before addressing other concerns.  These findings suggest future studies are needed to determine if early intervention ? even as soon as the first round of treatment is completed ? might be helpful, Putnick said.

Their study was published online Feb. 2 in the Journal of Pediatric Psychology.

Pass it on: Cancer treatment in young children may cause delays in speaking and walking abilities.

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