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Childhood Sexual Abuse Increases Risk of Cancer in Adulthood


It has been well established that adverse childhood experiences (ACE) result in negative outcomes. People who have experienced neglect, emotional abuse, domestic violence, childhood sexual abuse, physical abuse, or other traumatic events in childhood are at increased risk for psychological and physical illnesses.

Divorce, death of a parent, caregiver mental illness, and other environmental factors also place children at increased risk for negative behaviors, including smoking, drug use, and sexual risk taking. Psychological illnesses such as post-traumatic stress, depression, anxiety and even suicidal ideation are often associated with ACE.

Some research has even suggested that ACE increases the likelihood of cancer and other chronic illnesses by way of risky and maladaptive behavior and through changes in physiological and biological elements during childhood. Specifically, incidences of lung cancer and heart disease have been found to be higher in people with ACE most often as a result of smoking. However, until now, no study has looked specifically at how ACE affects risk of all cancers in childhood and adulthood.

Monique J. Brown of the Department of Family Medicine and Population Health at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine in Virginia wanted to examine whether or not ACEs increased overall risk of cancer. Brown assessed a large sample of participants and evaluated their ACE in relation to either cancer in childhood or adulthood.

She found that over 60% of all the participants had experienced at least one ACE and nearly 10% had a history of cancer. Of all the types of ACE, childhood sexual abuse was the most common in those with adult cancer, but appeared to have little impact on childhood cancer. The rate of cancer prevalence among the participants with ACE was much higher than the national average of 4.2% and suggests that ACE, and in particular, childhood sexual abuse, has a strong indirect impact on cancer risk in adulthood.

Brown was unable to find any evidence of ACE influencing childhood cancer risk, which suggests that biological and physiological effects of ACE may have less of an impact on overall health than the behavioral and emotional impacts of ACEs. Brown believes that these results reveal a particular segment of the population in need of early intervention. She added, “More research should focus on the impact of sexual abuse ACEs and adverse health outcomes.”

Brown, M.J., Thacker, L.R., Cohen, S.A. (2013). Association between adverse childhood experiences and diagnosis of cancer. PLoS ONE 8(6): e65524. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0065524

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  • terry jones June 26th, 2013 at 10:30 PM #1

    abuse can wreck havoc in a child’s life.it could well change the way he or she sees the world.it is well established that experiencing abuse can put a child at risk for smoking and substance abuse.

    now I am not surprised that this could predict cancer.because the abuse is pushing the child to behavior that lead to cancer.yes,this does need intervention.but what is needed even more is stricter laws and punishment for abusers.they are not just spoiling a short period of life of the child but are putting an entire lifetime at stake.

  • Rhonda June 27th, 2013 at 3:55 AM #2

    Do you think that this could be caused by the buildup of stress in one’s body who has lived through this kind of abuse? I don’t see any other thing that could raise the numbers like this because the other environmental and genetic factors are going to vary from person to person.

  • Gail Appel June 27th, 2013 at 9:42 AM #3

    Through my years of experience treating survivors of adverse childhood experience, a good number of them have developed cancer as well as other serious conditions.

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