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NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Years after they were first diagnosed, childhood cancer survivors - along with their brothers and sisters - missed twice as many school days as other kids, according to a new study.
Researchers found that childhood cancer survivors and their siblings missed - on average - 10 days of school during the 2009 academic year, while other students in the same school district missed an average of five days.
Those findings are concerning, according to the authors, because past research found kids who missed the most school were less likely to achieve academically, graduate high school or go to college than others with better attendance.
And while childhood cancer survivors might miss school because of ongoing medical issues, the study's lead author said she was surprised to see their brothers and sisters missing just as many days.
"We had originally intended (the siblings) to be more of a control group and were quite surprised to see that they missed about twice as many days as the general population," said Dr. Amy French, a pediatrician at The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto.
For the study, French and her colleagues looked at the report cards of 131 childhood cancer survivors who were in first through twelfth grade and came to their hospital for checkups. They also collected the report cards for 77 of the survivors' brothers and sisters.
The researchers then compared the number of absences among survivors and their siblings, and among all of the kids in the Toronto school district.
After subtracting the days survivors spent at the hospital for checkups, the researchers found that survivors and their siblings missed about the same number of days - 9.6 days and 9.9 days, respectively.
When they looked at all the kids in Toronto, however, the researchers found cancer survivors and their siblings missed about twice as much school as the other kids' five days.
And that, according to the researchers in The Journal of Pediatrics, is - on average - 10 years after the survivors were diagnosed with their cancers.
"You would think (cancer survivors) might miss school for ongoing issues with pain, fatigue and headaches, but not necessarily their siblings," said Jordan Gilleland, a pediatric psychologist at the Aflac Cancer Center of Children's Healthcare of Atlanta and Emory University.
Gilleland, who was not involved with the new research, told Reuters Health the fact that both survivors and their siblings missed the same amount of school suggests there is something going on within the family system related to attendance.
But the researchers can't say what, because only the survivors were asked why they didn't go to school.
French did say, however, that they suspect families of childhood cancer survivors may see their children as more vulnerable than other parents, and may also be more forgiving about missing school.
But that theory still needs to be investigated by future studies, and French said that people should know these are only the findings of one study in one population and that the results need to be replicated.
As for now, French said the findings of this study are still helpful.
"This highlights the fact that we can tell the families that despite that we feel like we're doing a good job of getting our kids to school, we're really not," she said.
Gilleland added that parents should also tell their child's doctor if they're refusing to go to school.
"It's important to have those conversations and to think about school as a huge piece of the survivors' life and that it's important for their continued success," said Gilleland.
SOURCE: bit.ly/R2lSad The Journal of Pediatrics, online July 26, 2012.