Parents of children with cancer and their physicians are willing to opt for less effective treatment to avoid risk of neurocognitive disorders later in life, according to results from a new study.

While some 80% of children with cancer survive to adulthood, most will experience chronic health conditions related to treatment, and many pediatric oncologists will adjust treatment strategies to lessen the likelihood of later effects. For their research published in Pediatrics, Katie A. Greenzang, MD, of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston and colleagues aimed to learn how both parents and physicians weighed the risks and benefits.

In a survey of 95 parents and 41 physicians at Dana-Farber, Dr. Greenzang and colleagues proposed hypothetical scenarios involving five common late effects of childhood cancer treatment: neurocognitive impairment, infertility, cardiac toxicity, second malignancies, and impaired development. The parents surveyed, all of whom had children diagnosed with cancer within the previous year, were asked to make decisions as though on behalf of their children, while physicians were asked to do so as on behalf of a newly diagnosed patient.

Avoiding severe cognitive impairment mattered more than an increased chance of a cure to both parents and physicians. Neurocognitive impairment was the risk that most affected treatment choices, with parents more likely to choose a treatment associated with no or mild neurocognitive impairment, compared with one that caused severe impairment (odds ratio, 2.83 for no impairment vs. severe impairment; P less than .001), which was also the case with physicians (OR, 4.01; P less than .001).

Parents would accept an 18% chance of another malignancy for a 10% greater chance of a cure, while physicians accepted a 15% risk. Parents were willing to tolerate a 31% risk of cardiac toxicity in exchange for the better chance of a cure, while physicians accepted a 22% higher risk.

The results, the researchers wrote in their analysis, offered a window into the level and type of later-life risks that parents can accept when making choices about cancer treatment and where those choices appear to differ from those made by physicians.

“Oncologists increasingly design clinical trials [for children with cancer] with dual goals of optimizing cure while minimizing late effects,” Dr. Greenzang and colleagues wrote. “In doing so, they make judgments about the relative value of short- and long-term outcomes in patients’ lives. Yet oncologists have largely done so in the absence of information about how parents prioritize avoidance of late effects relative to the chance of cure.”

In an editorial comment accompanying the study, Tara A. Brinkman, PhD, of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn., and James G. Gurney, PhD, of the University of Memphis noted that the findings “may have narrow clinical application” because many of the late-life effects presented in the survey will not present singly but will co-occur in survivors of childhood cancer. “Hypothetical scenarios that do not depict the full burden of late effects may not reflect a realistic understanding of the complexity of decisions to be made in a real-life diagnostic setting,” they said.

But the editorialists praised the study for revealing that many parents did not accurately perceive the true likelihood of late effects for their children. Parents in the survey tended to underestimate the risk for all the late effects besides infertility, which revealed a need for “better education about late effects early in the diagnostic and treatment process,” Dr. Brinkman and Dr. Gurney said, emphasizing that discussions should begin at diagnosis and continue beyond treatment “and long into the maintenance and surveillance period after the declaration of cure.”

Dr. Greenzang and colleagues’ study was funded by the National Institutes of Health and an Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality grant. The investigators declared no relevant financial disclosures. Dr. Brinkman and Dr. Gurney reported no relevant financial disclosures.

SOURCE: Greenzang et al. Pediatrics. 2020;145(5):e20193552.