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Late Effects of Treatment for Childhood Cancer (PDQ®)

Patient Version
Last Modified: 11/07/2014

Second Cancers



Childhood cancer survivors have an increased risk of a second cancer later in life.

A different primary cancer that occurs at least two months after cancer treatment ends is called a second cancer. A second cancer may occur months or years after treatment is completed. The type of second cancer that occurs depends in part on the original type of cancer and the cancer treatment.

Second cancers that occur after cancer treatment include the following:

Certain genetic patterns or syndromes may increase the risk of a second cancer.

Some childhood cancer survivors may have an increased risk of developing a second cancer because they have a family history of cancer or an inherited genetic syndrome such as Li-Fraumeni syndrome. Problems with the way DNA is repaired in cells and the way anticancer drugs are used in the body may also affect the risk of second cancers.

Patients who have been treated for cancer need regular screening tests to check for a second cancer.

It is important for patients who have been treated for cancer to be checked for a second cancer before symptoms appear. This is called screening for a second cancer and may help find a second cancer at an early stage. When abnormal tissue or cancer is found early, it may be easier to treat. By the time symptoms appear, cancer may have begun to spread.

It is important to remember that your child's doctor does not necessarily think your child has cancer if he or she suggests a screening test. Screening tests are given when your child has no cancer symptoms. If a screening test result is abnormal, your child may need to have more tests done to find out if he or she has a second cancer. These are called diagnostic tests.

The kind of test used to screen for a second cancer depends on the kind of cancer treatment the patient had in the past.

All patients who have been treated for cancer should have a physical exam and medical history done once a year. A physical exam of the body is done to check general signs of health, including checking for signs of disease, such as lumps, changes in the skin, or anything else that seems unusual. A medical history is taken to learn about the patient’s health habits and past illnesses and treatments.

If the patient received radiation therapy, the following tests and procedures may be used to check for skin, breast, or colorectal cancer:

  • Skin exam: A doctor or nurse checks the skin for bumps or spots that look abnormal in color, size, shape, or texture, especially in the area where radiation was given. It is suggested that a skin exam be done once a year to check for signs of skin cancer.

  • Breast self-exam : An exam of the breast by the patient. The patient carefully feels the breasts and under the arms for lumps or anything else that seems unusual. It is suggested that women treated with a higher dose of radiation therapy to the chest do a monthly breast self-exam beginning at puberty until age 25 years. Women who were treated with a lower dose of radiation to the chest may not need to begin checking for breast cancer at puberty. Talk to your doctor about when you should begin breast self-exams.

  • Clinical breast exam (CBE): An exam of the breast by a doctor or other health professional. The doctor will carefully feel the breasts and under the arms for lumps or anything else that seems unusual. It is suggested that women treated with a higher dose of radiation therapy to the chest have a clinical breast exam every year beginning at puberty until age 25 years. After age 25 years, clinical breast exams are done every 6 months. Women who were treated with a lower dose of radiation to the chest may not need to begin checking for breast cancer at puberty. Talk to your doctor about when you should begin clinical breast exams.

  • Mammogram : An x-ray of the breast. A mammogram may be done in women who had a higher dose of radiation to the chest and who do not have dense breasts. It is suggested that these women have a mammogram once a year starting 8 years after treatment or at age 25 years, whichever is later. Talk to your doctor about when you should begin to have mammograms to check for breast cancer.

  • Breast MRI (magnetic resonance imaging): A procedure that uses a magnet, radio waves, and a computer to make a series of detailed pictures of the breast. This procedure is also called nuclear magnetic resonance imaging (NMRI). An MRI may be done in women who had a higher dose of radiation to the chest and who have dense breasts. It is suggested that these women have an MRI once a year starting 8 years after treatment or at age 25 years, whichever is later. If you had radiation to the chest, talk to your doctor about whether you need an MRI of the breast to check for breast cancer.

  • Colonoscopy : A procedure to look inside the rectum and colon for polyps, abnormal areas, or cancer. A colonoscope is inserted through the rectum into the colon. A colonoscope is a thin, tube-like instrument with a light and a lens for viewing. It may also have a tool to remove polyps or tissue samples, which are checked under a microscope for signs of cancer. It is suggested that childhood cancer survivors who had a higher dose of radiation to the abdomen, pelvis, or spine have a colonoscopy every 5 years. This begins at age 35 years or 10 years after treatment ended, whichever is later. If you had radiation to the abdomen, pelvis, or spine, talk to your doctor about when you should begin to have a colonoscopies to check for colorectal cancer.