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What are the risks? How can we counteract them?
They’re draped across shelves, tucked into drawers and strewn across counters. The 142 medals and trophies scattered throughout James Eversull’s apartment are the trappings of a committed runner. But to Eversull, those awards have a much deeper significance: They are the result of a pledge he made six years ago.
As a survivor of childhood leukemia, Eversull has always been conscientious about his health. So when he returned to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in 2008 to participate in a long-term follow-up study, he was confident he would receive a glowing report.
“I’m in good shape; no problem,” he told himself.
But the test results told a different story. Problems with his weight, cholesterol, blood pressure and sugar intake put Eversull at high risk for developing heart problems and diabetes.
“That’s not going to happen to me,” he vowed.
Eversull is not the only childhood cancer survivor to identify underlying health problems while participating in a unique study called St. Jude LIFE. Through this program, nearly 3,000 St. Jude survivors have returned to campus to determine how cancer and its treatments affect them as they age.
Kirsten Ness, PhD, of St. Jude Epidemiology and Cancer Control was surprised by the appearance of many of the young adults who were returning for checkups.
“They would come in for assessments, and I thought, ‘These people look like older adults. They walk slowly; they get out of breath; they take a lot of rests; they are weak. They move like people who are elderly,’” Ness says.
She and her colleagues subsequently discovered that childhood cancer survivors are more likely than their peers to experience frail health, including low muscle mass, muscle weakness, low levels of physical activity and fatigue—signs typically associated with aging. In a recent study of 1,922 survivors with an average age of about 34, the researchers identified more than 13 percent of women and 3 percent of men as being frail. In a comparison group from the general population, no individuals qualified as frail.
“The survivors’ overall physical well-being essentially resembles that of people 30 years older than they are,” Ness says.
The hospital’s scientists are devising ways to counteract the problems experienced by these survivors.
“In our brain tumor population at St. Jude, we’re testing the effects of doing high-intensity exercise during radiation therapy,” Ness explains. “So while they’re undergoing cancer therapy, they’re exercising.”
In an effort to increase bone health in survivors with osteoporosis, scientists are testing whether bone health is stimulated when survivors stand on a vibrating plate.
Brandy Wilbanks (at left) participates in a test as part of the St. Jude LIFE study. Results showed that this young mother had the fitness level of a woman in her mid-60s. “Most 32-year-olds don’t have to worry about breaking a hip, but I have to,” says Wilbanks, who had bone cancer in her leg when she was a teen. Wilbanks is making a concerted effort to improve her health by exercising, eating the right foods and avoiding unhealthy habits such as excessive sun exposure and smoking. She also has regular medical checkups and tests, based on recommendations from her St. Jude physicians.
Another study involves methods for preventing heart problems. Survivors at high risk for congestive heart failure may enroll in a study testing whether a certain drug can prevent the onset of heart disease.
In her daily interactions with survivors, Ness constantly emphasizes the importance of positive lifestyle changes.
“Survivors are given the opportunity—with help from their care providers and their community physicians—to take control of their health by getting appropriate medical screenings, exercising, eating healthy foods, and avoiding tobacco and sun exposure,” she says.
But few people pursue a healthy lifestyle with the vigor and passion of Eversull.
After his first St. Jude LIFE evaluation, Eversull began working out in the gym five days a week, running seven miles each day and closely monitoring his sugar intake. The hundreds of road races he has completed include three marathons. After outrunning acute lymphoblastic leukemia, Eversull is now determined to win the longevity race.
“There’s a man in my town who is still running races at age 95,” Eversull says. “I told my doctor that if I can keep up what I’ve been doing and maintain my healthy lifestyle, I don’t see why I can’t live to be 120.”
Abridged from Promise, Spring 2014