A new study suggests abuse of a child by a parent can increase the child’s chance of developing cancer in adulthood.
Purdue University researchers discovered the risks are significant when mothers abuse their daughters and fathers abuse their sons.
“People often say that children are resilient and they’ll bounce back, but we found that there are events that can have long-term consequences on adult health,” said Dr. Kenneth Ferraro, distinguished professor of sociology.
“In this case, people who were frequently emotionally or physically abused by their parents were more likely to have cancer in adulthood, and the link was greater when fathers abused sons and mothers abused daughters. Overall, the more frequent and intense the abuse, the more it elevated the cancer risk.
“We would like to see child abuse noted as an environmental factor that can increase cancer occurrence in adulthood. More research on this topic also could help mediate the effects or improve interventions to help abused children.”
The research is published online by the Journal of Aging and Health.
“We started examining a variety of childhood misfortunes, including abuse, and when these were all combined, we found that men with the most stressors during childhood were more likely to develop cancer,” said co-author and sociology and gerontology graduate student Patricia Morton.
“Second, we found that when children were abused by their same-sex parent, it increased their cancer risk,” possibly becaue of the greater social bond between same-sex children and parents.
“Other studies have shown that if a mother smokes, the daughter is more likely to smoke, and the same relationship is found when sons mirror their father’s behavior,” Morton said.
“More research is needed, but another possibility is that men may be more likely to physically abuse their sons, and mothers are more likely to physically abuse their daughters.”
Researchers reviewed survey data from 2,101 adults in two waves of the National Survey of Midlife Development in the United States.
Abuse was one of many childhood misfortunes — including poverty, loss of parent and family educational status — that researchers examined to determine if there was a link to cancer in adulthood.
One method of analysis looked at cumulative stress during childhood. This review found that men who experienced the most cumulative stressors during childhood were more likely to have cancer. This was not true with women, and this suggests that men and women may have different responses to childhood stressors, Morton said.
A second perspective looked at each category of misfortune — a viewpoint that identified the connection between abuse and cancer. In this analysis, survey participants were not directly asked if they were abused, but abuse was defined by survey answers to questions such as how frequently a parent, sibling or other person insulted or swore at them as a child; refused to talk them; threatened to hit them; pushed, grabbed or shoved; threw something at them; kicked, bit or hit them with a fist; choked them; or burned or scalded them.
The frequency of these abuses also was identified. Researcher then controlled for factors such as an adults age, lifestyle choices and economic status yet the association between abuse and cancer remained.
“It also is likely,” Ferraro said, “that the effect between child abuse and cancer is underrepresented in our study, because people who suffered abuse and were then incarcerated, placed in a mental institution or died were not included in this survey of adults. These groups may represent people with more acute and severe effects from abuse, and even though they are omitted, we still find a link.”
As a result of the findings, researchers are expanding their investigation of the effects of child abuse and health conditions in adulthood. Scientists are now examining potential links between child abuse and other health outcomes, including heart attacks and types of cancer.
“The connection between negative childhood events and mental health is accepted, and these findings reinforce that such events can also have a long-lasting effect on a person’s physical health,” Morton said.
“It’s shocking just how much the damage sticks, and it is a reminder that childhood, which is defined by rapidly changing biological systems, is a sensitive period of development.”
Source: Purdue University