24 August 2018

Study: Parental Cancer Affects Children’s Achievements in School and Later in Life


Using data from a million Danes, researchers from the University of Copenhagen have studied the influence of having a parent with cancer on children and adolescents. Their achievements in school and later in life are not as good as those of their peers, the study shows.

One in every three Danes will develop cancer at some point in life. The disease does not just affect the individual, but also has a great impact on his or her closest family. In a new study, researchers from the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences at the University of Copenhagen have learned that children with a parent that has either suffered or died from cancer do not do as well as their peers in school and later in life. The new study has just been published in the scientific Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health.

The study is based on data on all children born in Denmark between 1978 and 1999 and their parents. In total, the researchers have studied data on around one million Danes. Here they discovered that parental cancer during childhood affects the child’s final examination in the ninth grade (around the age of 15) as well as later in life.

’We wanted to see to which extent distressing experiences during childhood have long-term consequences for the child’s development. What we have learned from the study is that events early in life are vital, also for young children. It appears to affect their schooling as well as their achievements later in life. Some may think that this is because the parents who develop cancer have little education themselves, but we have taken the parents’ level of education into account and believe it to be the result of the strain experienced by the children in childhood’, says Professor Anne-Marie Nybo Andersen at the Department of Public Health, who has authored the study along with PhD Student Anne Cathrine Jørgensen and Postdoc Stine Kjær Urhøj.

The average grade at the examination in the ninth grade of children with a seriously ill parent is a quarter of a point lower than for the rest of the group. The researchers also found parental cancer in childhood to have an influence on the children’s level of education and income later in life. Their risk of being at the bottom of the income spectrum at the age of 30 is higher, just as they have a higher risk than the group in general of not getting an education beyond primary and lower secondary school.

Furthermore, the study shows that if the parent died of the disease or his or her chances of survival are poor, the children show increased risk of not getting an education, among other things. On the other hand, if the parent’s prognosis is good or he or she is alive at the child’s 18th birthday, the disease does not appear to have an effect on the child’s level of education.

A child with a parent suffering from cancer is in the study defined as a child who has seen at least one of his or her parents be diagnosed with cancer before his or her 18th birthday. The parents in the study suffer from various cancer forms. Among the mothers the most common types are breast, skin, cervical and ovarian cancer, while among the fathers, prostate, bladder, bowel, skin and lung cancer are the most common forms.

About the study: The study is a cohort study, where the researchers through combined use of Danish health and social registers have shown that if one or both of a child’s parents have suffered from cancer while the child was a minor, the child scores lower on examination in the ninth grade, often fails to get an education after finishing primary and lower secondary school and has a lower income than peers whose parents did not suffer from cancer. The study is partially funded by the Nordic Council through the NordForsk-funded project Contingent Life Courses.

Scientific article: ‘Primary school achievement and socioeconomic attainment in individuals affected by parental cancer in childhood or adolescence: a Danish nationwide register-based study’.

Professor Anne-Marie Nybo Andersen
Email: amny@sund.ku.dk
Phone: +45 30280462

Press officer Cecilie Krabbe
+45 93565911
Email: cecilie.krabbe@sund.ku.dk