Assessing Romantic Lives of Adult Survivors of Childhood Cancer

Assessing Romantic Lives of Adult Survivors of Childhood Cancer 150 150 Kevin Mayhood

In some ways, the group appears more resilient than survivors of adult-onset cancer or those with other childhood-onset diseases.

Adult survivors of childhood cancer appear, on the whole, to have comparable romantic lives to others their age, new studies show.

Surprisingly, the group doesn’t seem to carry the same burdens as men and women with adult-onset cancer or those diagnosed with other chronic diseases as children. These survivors report they’re as happy with their romantic relationships as healthy controls.

Within the group, however, certain survivors are at risk: those who received high-dose neurotoxic treatment lagged in achieving milestones of psychosexual development.

“Overall, survivors appear to be doing as well as healthy people,” says Vicky Lehmann, PhD, psychologist, former postdoctoral fellow at The Research Institute at Nationwide Children’s Hospital and lead author of the studies. “But looking at overall rates bears the risk of overlooking those who are struggling.”

Improved survival for children with cancer during the past few decades sparked this new field of research. Lehmann and her colleagues report their findings in recent issues of the journals Psycho-Oncology, Journal of Adolescent and Young Adult Oncology and Cancer.

The researchers surveyed and reviewed medical records of 149 adults age 20 to 40 who were treated for cancer at Nationwide Children’s. The survivors were diagnosed between ages 5 and 18 and were at least five years past their diagnosis.

Survivors of adult-onset cancer often have problems with body image and sexuality that impair relationships. And, other studies suggest parents of chronically ill children may become overprotective and less emotionally engaged, thus affecting their child’s attachment and ability to later form relationships. Hence, survivors’ romantic relationships might be affected in various ways, both on a physical and emotional level.

But, childhood cancer survivors and controls report similar body image, sexual experiences and relationship satisfaction, the researchers found. Compared to controls, childhood cancer survivors also recalled their parents as warmer and report similar adult attachment and relationship status.

“The latter finding suggests that we should encourage parents to continue to be warm and emotionally accepting of their child,” says Cynthia Gerhardt, PhD, a psychologist and director of the Center for Biobehavioral Health at the Research Institute at Nationwide Children’s, and a coauthor. “This will help over the course of their lives.”

Digging into medical factors revealed a set of survivors who struggle. Those who’d received high-dose neurotoxic therapies (i.e., not only brain tumor but also numerous leukemia and lymphoma survivors) were less likely to be in a relationship and to have had a sexual partner. Interestingly, their sexual satisfaction did not differ.

The researchers suggest that health care providers should be attentive to potential romantic and sexual problems among survivors and make referrals if indicated.



  1. Lehmann V, Hagedoorn M, Gerhardt CA, Fults M, Olshefski RS, Sanderman R, Tuinman MA. Body issues, sexual satisfaction, and relationship status satisfaction in long-term childhood cancer survivors and healthy controls.  Psycho-Oncology.2016 Feb;25(2):210-6.
  2. Lehmann V, Hagedoorn M, Gerhardt CA, Keim MC, Guthrie L, Sanderman R, Tuinman MA. Memories of parent behaviors and adult attachment in childhood cancer survivors.  Journal of Young Adolescent and Adult Oncology. 2016 Oct 21. [Epub ahead of print]
  3. Lehmann V, Tuinman MA, Keim MC, Winning AM, Olshefski RS, Bajwa RPS, Hagedoorn M, Gerhardt CA. Psychosexual development and satisfaction in long-term survivors of childhood cancer: neurotoxic treatment intensity as a risk indicatorCancer. 2017 Feb 6. [Epub ahead of print]

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