By Tamara Mathias

(Reuters) – Children of cancer patients are at risk of receiving lower grades in school, not being as academically qualified as peers, and earning less as young adults, a Danish study suggests.

The study also found that the negative correlation between academic or socioeconomic achievement and parental cancer appeared stronger the more severe the cancer was.

“We wanted to explore the extent to which – and whether – stressful events in early life, such as a severely ill parent, affected child development in the long-term,” coauthors Anne Cathrine Joergensen and Anne-Marie Nybo Andersen told Reuters Health in a joint email.

The results may indicate that some children who experience parental cancer would benefit from appropriate support and early educational rehabilitation as teenagers, they write in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health.

The findings are drawn from national registry data on over a million children born in Denmark from 1978 through 1999.

The researchers looked at children’s grade point average (GPA), overall level of education attained and disposable income by the age of 30, comparing children with healthy parents to children with a parent diagnosed with cancer.

After accounting for factors that might affect kids’ academic achievements, such as parents’ education level, the researchers found that by the end of ninth grade, the risk of having a below-average GPA was five percent higher among children affected by parental cancer. When parents had been given a poor five-year prognosis, their children’s risk of a below-average GPA was 25 percent higher. The risk was 30 percent higher when a parent had died from cancer.

“Further, if the parental cancer type was of poor five-year prognosis, we found a 52 percent increased risk of attaining the lowest educational level and a 61 percent increased risk if the parent died of cancer,” the authors wrote.

The research team also saw a slightly increased risk that affected children would have less disposable income as adults.

Particularly affected were children who were younger than five when their parents were diagnosed, suggesting that the impact could extend across the course of a person’s life, they noted.

An observational study such as this one can’t prove that parents’ illness directly affects children’s educational outcomes. The researchers also lacked data on school grades for 11 percent of children in the study.

Still, a cancer diagnosis in a parent can weigh heavily on a child, and earlier research has suggested such children may have impaired emotional, social, cognitive and behavioral development and physical functioning, the authors said.

“Parental cancer is one of the highest forms of stress for a parent and thus a child,” said Dr. George Sachs of the Sachs Center, a New York City psychotherapy practice.

Sachs, who wasn’t involved in the study, added, “When a parent is diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, it’s important for the family to give the children extra support, emotionally and academically. . . The findings are not surprising.”

SOURCE: Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, online August 20, 2018.