Having a parent with cancer hampers grades and future income

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Children with a parent who either had or died from cancer don’t do as well as their peers in school and may not earn as much later in life, according to new research.

Researchers looked at data on every child born in Denmark between 1978 and 1999 and their parents—around 1 million Danes in total—and discovered that parental cancer during childhood not only affects the child’s final examinations in the ninth grade (around the age of 15) but later in life, as well.

“We wanted to see to which extent distressing experiences during childhood have long-term consequences for the child’s development. What we have learned from the study is that events early in life are vital, also for young children,” says Anne-Marie Nybo Andersen, professor in the public health department at the University of Copenhagen.

“It appears to affect their schooling as well as their achievements later in life,” Andersen says. “Some may think that this is because the parents who develop cancer have little education themselves, but we have taken the parents’ level of education into account and believe it to be the result of the strain experienced by the children in childhood.”

Ninth graders with a seriously ill parent had a final exam grade that was a quarter of a point lower than children without an ill parent. Further, the researchers found that having a parent with cancer influenced a child’s level of education and income later in life.

These children have a higher risk of being at the bottom of the income spectrum at the age of 30, and a higher risk of not getting an education beyond primary and lower secondary school.

Furthermore, the study indicates that if a child’s parent dies of the disease or his or her chances of survival are poor, they show an increased risk of not getting an education. On the other hand, if the parent’s prognosis is good or he or she is alive at the child’s 18th birthday, the disease doesn’t appear to have an effect on education level.

For the purpose of the study, researchers defined a child with a parent who has cancer as a child who has seen at least one of his or her parents receive a cancer diagnosis before his or her 18th birthday. The parents in the study had various forms of cancer. Among the mothers the most common types are breast, skin, cervical, and ovarian cancer, while among the fathers, prostate, bladder, bowel, skin, and lung cancer are the most common forms.

The Nordic Council through the NordForsk-funded project Contingent Life Courses funded the study, which appears in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health.

Source: University of Copenhagen