Is there a link between cerebral palsy and cancer?
Yes, there is a link between cerebral palsy (CP) and cancer. According to a 2022 study in the medical journal Preventive Medicine Reports, children with CP are 64 times more likely to develop adult-onset chronic diseases, including cancer.
Additionally, an American cohort study (ongoing research that follows a group of people over time) found that adults with cerebral palsy had a higher risk of death due to colon and breast cancers.
Risk factors that link cerebral palsy and cancer
There isn't direct evidence linking cerebral palsy as a primary risk factor for cancer. However, research shows that there are certain characteristics that many people with CP share that could contribute to higher cancer rates.
- Intellectual disability: The same 2022 study revealed that people with intellectual disabilities are more likely to develop chronic diseases, including cancer.
- Obesity: Children with CP have higher obesity rates, which increases cancer risk. One reason is that fat tissues secrete excess estrogen, leading to a higher risk of breast, ovarian, endometrial, and other types of cancer.
- Severe motor impairment: A study revealed that severe motor impairment due to spasticity (abnormal muscle tightness) is associated with higher rates of chronic diseases such as cancer.
For more information on all aspects of life with cerebral palsy, download our FREE Cerebral Palsy Guide now.
Early signs and symptoms of cancer
Cancer symptoms vary widely based on the type, location, and stage of the disease. However, many forms of cancer share some general warning signs.
Early cancer warning signs include:
- Change in bowel habits or bladder function
- Chronic fatigue (tiredness) that is new
- Lumps or swelling that grow over time
- Night sweats or fever without any obvious reason
- Persistent cough or shortness of breath
- Sores that don’t heal
- Unexplained pain
- Unexplained weight loss and loss of appetite
Remember: many of these symptoms can also be related to non-cancerous conditions or everyday ailments.
However, if your child with cerebral palsy has any of these symptoms that are new or unexplained, notify their pediatrician and request a cancer screening.
What to expect during a cancer screening
Early cancer detection and frequent screening provide the best chance for treatment and survival.
- Physical exam: The doctor will conduct a physical exam of your child’s body to check for warning signs of cancer, such as lumps.
- Imaging procedures: Doctors may then take pictures of areas inside your child's body. Examples of imaging procedures include mammograms and X-rays. Be sure to ask for accessible radiology equipment if your child uses a wheelchair.
- Genetic testing: This is a laboratory test where tissue or cells are analyzed to look for changes in chromosomes or genes. These changes may indicate that your child has or is at risk of developing cancer.
- Lab tests: Medical providers may take a tissue sample (biopsy) or collect blood or urine to look for cancer.
Top children’s hospitals for cancer
If your child is diagnosed with cancer, it is important to get high-quality treatment. The best children's hospitals for cancer are those that are renowned for their specialized care, research, and advanced treatments.
Here are some top hospitals for children with cancer:
- Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta
- Children’s Hospital Colorado
- Children’s Hospital Los Angeles
- Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia
- Children’s National Hospital
- Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center
- Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center
- Johns Hopkins Children's Center
- St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital
- Texas Children’s Hospital
How to find the best cancer facility for your child with CP
While no hospitals specialize exclusively in treating children with both cerebral palsy and cancer, with some research, you can find a hospital that fits your family's needs.
Here are some steps you can take to find the best cancer treatment center for your child with cerebral palsy.
1. Get pediatrician recommendations
First, talk to your child’s pediatrician. They can recommend suitable treatment centers based on your child’s needs and your location and/or ability to travel.
2. Find cancer centers that also specialize in CP
To narrow down your pediatrician’s recommendations, look for cancer centers that also specialize in cerebral palsy.
Many major hospitals have well-funded cerebral palsy programs. For example, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital has a cerebral palsy program with over 50 physicians, physical therapists, surgeons, social workers, speech-language pathologists, and other health care providers.
3. Look for hospitals that offer new and emerging treatments
You can continue narrowing your search by looking for hospitals that offer cerebral palsy clinical trials and emerging treatments for both cancer and CP.
There may be treatments that can help your child recover from cancer while also managing cerebral palsy symptoms.
An emerging treatment for cancer is CAR T-cell therapy. This gene therapy is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and uses a patient’s T-cells to treat cancer. Doctors remove the cells from the patient's bloodstream and alter them so they can locate and kill cancer cells more effectively.
Here are some emerging treatments for cerebral palsy:
- Advanced medications: While current medications manage spasticity and pain, newer medications aim to address other issues related to cerebral palsy.
- Constraint-induced movement therapy (CIMT): This restricts the movement of the unaffected limb, forcing use of the affected one to enhance its function.
- Exoskeletons: Wearable external braces that assist in movement.
- Functional electrical stimulation: Applies small electrical pulses to paralyzed muscles to restore or improve their function.
- Gene therapy: Though still in its infancy for many neurological conditions, there's hope that gene therapies might one day help in repairing or replacing damaged brain cells in CP patients.
- Hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT): This involves breathing pure oxygen in a pressurized room or chamber. It is believed to increase the amount of oxygen that can reach brain tissue to aid in repair.
- Neurofeedback training: This aims to help CP patients learn to change their brainwaves by receiving feedback from electroencephalogram (EEG) displays.
- Robot-assisted therapy: This uses robotic devices to assist in physical therapy, potentially improving motor skills in CP patients.
- Stem cell therapy: Stem cells are used to repair damaged brain tissue. Some studies have shown promise, but more research is needed to determine efficacy and safety.
- Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR): Used in therapy to improve motor skills through interactive games and simulations.
4. Check your insurance coverage
You should also check to see whether your insurance plan covers your child’s treatment(s). If it does not, talk to the hospital to learn more about payment options. Some hospitals offer financial assistance.
Additionally, some families may qualify for Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). These are government programs offering low or no-cost health insurance to eligible recipients.
Costs of cancer treatment
The costs of cancer treatment vary depending on various factors.
- The type of cancer: Advanced cancers that have spread to different parts of the body may be more expensive to treat than early-stage cancers. As your child undergoes more treatments, costs may increase.
- Treatment type(s): Depending on your child’s cancer, they may need one or more types of treatments. Some treatments and drugs are more expensive than others.
- Overall health of your child: Your child’s health will determine what treatments they can get. This, in turn, affects the costs of cancer treatment. For instance, if your child can’t get surgery, they may need chemotherapy, which can be more expensive.
If you suspect that your child’s CP may have been caused by an avoidable birth injury, you may also consider talking to an experienced cerebral palsy lawyer to see if you could be able to access financial compensation.
Cancer treatment options
Depending on your child’s needs and overall health, their oncologist may recommend one or more cancer treatments.
- Chemotherapy uses powerful drugs to kill fast-growing cells in the body.
- Immunotherapy uses the body’s immune system (or lab-made substances) to help the body detect and fight cancer.
- Radiation therapy uses X-rays and other radiation types to kill cancer cells.
- Surgery involves removing a cancerous tumor from the body. Depending on the size and location of the tumor, it may require the removal of surrounding tissue.
- Targeted therapy treats cancer by attacking proteins that affect how cancer cells grow and spread.
Talk to your child’s cancer specialist to learn more about which treatment may be the best fit.
Financial resources for children with CP and cancer
Cerebral palsy and cancer treatments can both be expensive. There may also be related costs such as transportation and lodging if you have to travel to get treatment for your child.
Here are some nonprofit organizations that may offer financial help:
- Giving Angels Foundation gives grants to lower-income families to enhance the lives of children with CP.
- Oracle Health Foundation provides medical grants, community initiatives, wellness programs, and more for children and families.
- United Healthcare Children’s Foundation offers financial assistance for medical expenses not covered by insurance for children, enhancing their access to needed care.
- Variety – the Children’s Charity provides assistive support for children with CP, including wheelchairs, service animals, vehicle modifications, and adaptive bicycles.
Other resources for children with cerebral palsy and cancer
Here are some other resources that may be able to help your family manage cerebral palsy and cancer.
- Cerebral Palsy Research Network (CPRN) is a collaboration between community members and hospitals. It seeks to improve health outcomes for people with CP through education, research, and community programming.
- Clayton Dabney for Kids with Cancer gives anonymous assistance to financially struggling families throughout the U.S. with children in the last stages of terminal cancer. It offers families a chance to create everlasting memories with their children.
- Go4theGoal seeks to improve the lives of children with cancer by providing financial support, developing unique hospital programs, funding research, and granting personal wishes.
- March of Dimes improves wellness and health for new mothers and babies. It has a large supportive community for sharing experiences about raising children with special needs.
- The National Children’s Cancer Society provides financial, emotional, and educational support to kids with cancer and their families.
Tips for talking to your child about their cancer diagnosis
Finding out that your child with cerebral palsy also has cancer can be devastating. However, you and your child can work together to manage life with their new diagnosis.
For many families, the first step is to have a conversation with their child.
Here are some tips for talking to your child about their cancer diagnosis:
- Plan in advance. Think about what you will say and write it down. Be as simple and direct as possible.
- Ask what your child knows about cancer. Be open about cancer and ask your child what they know about it. Don’t make them feel like cancer should be a secret.
- Be transparent. Tell your child the basics, such as the cancer’s name, where it is in their body, and what treatments and side effects they may have. Ask them what else they want to know. Older children and teens may want to have more information.
- Comfort and reassure your child. Tell your child that you will always love and look after them and are searching for the best treatments for their condition.
For more tips, talk to your child’s health care team. They may be able to direct you to helpful videos, books, or websites about talking to children about cancer.
Get additional help for cerebral palsy and cancer
If your child with cerebral palsy has also been diagnosed with cancer, staying informed and accessing available resources is your best defense. While there is no magic cure for cancer, help is available.
Cerebral Palsy Guide is committed to helping families affected by cerebral palsy. If you would like to speak with one of our Patient Advocates, call (855) 220-1101 to learn more about how we may be able to help.