Cancer survivors have shorter lifespan finds new study

A large study has found that people who have survived cancer and its treatment are more likely to die sooner and have a shorter lifespan compared to those who have never had cancer.

The study is actually a synthesis of over 1,200 published studies that looked at the average life expectancy of people who have had childhood cancers and have survived them with adequate treatment. Results show that their life expectancy is 30 percent less than the general population. The study was published in the journal of the European Society of Medical Oncology or ESMO Open.

The study emphasizes on the different complications that may arise among cancer survivors who have beaten the disease as youngsters. These people are more likely to die in their 50’s rather than in their 80’s, finds the study. They note that these individuals are more likely to get other disease conditions later in life such as heart disease, scarring of the lungs, frailty and even secondary or new cancers. These individuals are more susceptible to illnesses that occur due to old age compared to those in the general population. At present there are 30 million cancer survivors worldwide and with the added new 19 million cases each year the numbers are set to rise exponentially by 2025.

The underlying genetic problems that have led to these findings is that these patients generally have shorter telomeres explain researchers. The telomeres are protective caps at the ends of the chromosomes (that carry the genetic codes of our body within the cells). These telomeres get shorter as a person ages. Cancer survivors tend to have shorter telomeres than normal persons at the same age. This means that they are older than their actual years. It could be the intensive and toxic chemotherapy and radiation therapy that has led to this finding say researchers. These therapies damage the body in more ways than one and impair their ability to recover from illness and repair itself.

According to study leader Dr Shahrukh Hashmi of the Cancer Center at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, surviving cancer is better than dying prematurely but this study was conducted to understand the mechanism behind the shorter lifespan of these individuals and also possible ways that this can be corrected. He added that cancer survivors should all be followed up over the years to check for the late complications and treating them early to increase survival.

The study showed that people who have survived a childhood cancer are at least six times more likely to develop a secondary cancer when compared with the general population. Those who have had a bone marrow transplant are around eight times more likely to become frail as they age compared to their own siblings. People who have been treated with long term steroids for their cancer also tend to have a higher risk of cataracts, brittle bones or osteoporosis, damage to the nerves, increased propensity to get infections, thinning of skin and impaired healing of wounds. Other anticancer drugs are more likely to cause heart disease, heart failure, thyroid abnormalities, arthritis, muscle weakness, loss of hearing, kidney and liver damage, constipation and infertility. Radiation therapy too can lead to infertility, hardening of the arteries, memory loss and loss of cognitive functions and an increased risk of secondary or new cancers such as those of the bone marrow and blood.

More research in this field is necessary say researchers to reduce premature aging and complications in this population. “We believe that cancer survivors deserve long term follow up for the mitigation of the late effects,” they write in the paper. “The ultimate goal of these studies will be to prevent late complications using early interventions, including lifestyle changes and medications,” they add.

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Written by

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Dr. Ananya Mandal is a doctor by profession, lecturer by vocation and a medical writer by passion. She specialized in Clinical Pharmacology after her bachelor's (MBBS). For her, health communication is not just writing complicated reviews for professionals but making medical knowledge understandable and available to the general public as well.


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