Cancer stalks: Second cases on the rise

NEW YORK: Nearly 1 in 5 new cases in the US now involves someone who has had the disease before. When doctors talk about second cancers, they mean a different tissue type or a different site, not a recurrence or spread of the original tumor. 

Judith Bernstein of Philadelphia is an extreme example. She has had eight types over the last two decades, all treated successfully. “There was a while when I was getting one cancer diagnosis after another,” including breast, lung, esophageal, and the latest -a rare tumor of her eyelids, Bernstein said. “At one point I thought I had can cer in my little finger.” 

About 19% of cancers in the US now are second-or-more cases, a recent study found. In the 1970s, it was only 9%. Over that period, the number of first cancers rose 70% while the number of second cancers rose 300%. Strange as it may sound, this is partly a success story: More people are surviving cancer and living long enough to get it again, because the risk of cancer rises with age. 

Second cancers also can arise from the same gene mutations or risk factors, such as smoking, that spurred the first one. And some of the very treatments that help people survive their first cancer, such as radiation, can raise the risk of a new cancer forming later in life, although treatments have greatly improved in recent years to minimize this problem. 

Psychologically , a second cancer often is more traumatizing than the first.

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