Childhood cancer survivors are 20 to 25 per cent more likely to remain unmarried than their siblings or people in the general population, a U.S. study has found.

Lead researcher Dr. Nina S. Kadan-Lottick, an assistant professor at Yale School of Medicine and Yale Cancer Center in New Haven, Conn., says many survivors survive the physical effects of cancer but struggle with the social effects

"Many childhood cancer survivors still struggle to fully participate in our society because of the lasting cognitive and physical effects of their past cancer therapy," she said in a news release from the American Association for Cancer Research.

Using data from the Childhood Cancer Survivor Study, an ongoing study of more than 10,000 childhood cancer survivors from across the U.S. who are now adults, Kadan-Lottick's team found:

  • 42 per cent of the survivors were married
  • 7.3 per cent were separated or divorced
  • 46 per cent were never married

The likelihood of marriage varied depending on the type of cancer or therapy, the study authors noted. While brain tumour survivors were 50 per cent more likely to never marry, survivors of central nervous system tumours and leukemia were the ones most likely to stay single.

Likelihood of divorce did not vary between the forms of cancer studied.

Those who had undergone cranial radiation were among those most likely not to marry. The researchers suspect the physical effects of that therapy may be why.

"Our study pinpointed what aspects of the survivor experience likely contribute to altered marriage patterns: short stature, poor physical functioning and cognitive problems. These conditions are known to be associated with certain chemotherapy and radiation exposures," said Kadan-Lottick.

The study results are published in the journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention.

De. Electra D. Paskett, the deputy editor of the journal who was not involved with the study, said the findings shed light on the use of the long-term implications of certain treatments, which may affect a patient's physical appearance, thereby resulting in social effects.

"In other studies, marital status has been found to be a significant predictor of survival. Will we see this among the childhood survivors as well?" wondered Paskett, who is a professor of cancer research in the Division of Epidemiology at the Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center.

More analyses are underway to better understand factors that contribute to other adult "benchmarks" among childhood cancer survivors, such as living independently, achieving higher education and income.