Cerebral Palsy and Cancer

Quick Answer

Cancer is the second leading cause of death in the United States. Sadly, research shows that people with cerebral palsy and other disabilities are at higher risk for specific types of cancer and other chronic diseases. Many of these conditions can be detected and treated early with proper screening. Learn more about the connection between cerebral palsy and cancer below.

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What Is Cerebral Palsy?

Cerebral palsy, or CP, is the name for a group of permanent disorders that cause problems with balance, movement, and posture.

CP is caused by abnormal brain development or damage to the brain as it is still developing, most often before birth.

An average of 1 in 345 children in the U.S. has cerebral palsy, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), making it the most common childhood motor disability.

CP symptoms are different for each person, but anyone with CP experiences problems with movement and posture.

Someone with moderate CP may not be able to move without the aid of a walker or other adaptive equipment. Children and adults with severe CP may not be able to walk at all.

Many people with CP have co-occurring conditions that can affect their quality of life, including intellectual disabilities, hearing or vision loss, problems with speech, and seizures (epilepsy).

Unfortunately, some studies have shown that CP is also connected with a higher likelihood of certain chronic diseases like cancer.

The Link Between Cerebral Palsy and Cancer

Studies have shown that cerebral palsy and other developmental disabilities are often linked with lower rates of disease screening and greater incidences of specific types of cancer.

A study of cancer mortality in cerebral palsy in California from 1988 to 2002 found that death from cancer of the esophagus, colon, liver, breast, and bladder made up an excessive number of the results.

Close-up view of cancer growths in the colon (large intestine)
Colon cancer is caused by malignant growths lining the large intestine.

Specifically, the study team proposed that motor impairments associated with CP may contribute to an increased risk of cancer. Physical activity has been shown to help slow the development of some neoplasms (abnormal tissue growths), especially in hormone-related and digestive cancers.

These and other study results have also shed light on potential areas for improvement in cancer screening and treatment for individuals with developmental disabilities.

Here’s more information on some specific cancer types and their connection to CP.

Bladder Cancer

Bladder cancer starts in the lining of the urinary bladder (a hollow organ in the lower pelvis). When malignant (cancer) cells develop, they can form a tumor, and with time, spread to other parts of the body.

Bladder cancer most commonly affects older adults — about 9 out of 10 people are over the age of 55 when diagnosed, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS).

It’s believed that increased rates of bladder infection in those with CP may contribute to higher rates of bladder cancer among people with this type of movement disorder.

The study of cancer mortality among those with CP in California over a 14-year period found that women with CP were more likely to die from bladder cancer than men with CP.

Breast Cancer

Breast cancer happens when malignant cells form in the tissues of the breast. Other than skin cancer, it’s the most common cancer in American women, making up 30% of all new female cancers each year. It can affect men as well, though at far lower rates (less than 1% of cases).

The same California study observed excesses in breast cancer mortality in people with CP, partly due to poor diagnosis and/or treatment. Other studies of populations with developmental disabilities have suggested that breast cancer screening may be problematic in patients with CP.

Women with CP are 3 times more likely to die from breast cancer than women without CP.

Additionally, according to the CDC, screening rates for breast and cervical cancers are lower among women with intellectual and developmental disabilities than among women with other types of disabilities.

Colon Cancer

Colon cancer begins in the large intestine, which is the final part of the digestive tract. It affects people of all ages but is most common in older adults. Also called colorectal cancer, colon cancer caused more deaths among men with CP versus women with CP during the same long-term California study of CP mortality rates.

The CDC recommends regular colon cancer screenings starting at age 45 and then every 5-10 years thereafter (or earlier if you have a personal or family history of colorectal cancer).

Esophageal Cancer

Esophageal cancer affects the esophagus, the long muscular tube that connects the throat to the stomach. It is more common in men than women.

Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is a major risk factor for esophageal cancer. People diagnosed with GERD have issues with stomach acid being regurgitated into their esophagus.

Interestingly, GERD has been found in up to 75% of CP patients, a much higher rate than in the general population.

The California study discovered that death from esophageal cancer was more common in those with severe CP than those with mild or moderate CP.

Liver Cancer

Liver cancer is one of the fastest growing cancer types in the United States and affects the body’s largest internal organ.

This type of cancer is more common in people with a history of hepatitis B and C. Both of these viral infections tend to occur more frequently in individuals with intellectual disabilities.

An estimated two-thirds of children who develop CP also have an intellectual disability.

Cerebral Palsy and Cancer Screening

Woman standing in front of a mammography machine with her doctor
Regular mammograms are just one important type of cancer screening.

Even though early detection of cancer offers the best chance for treatment and survival, it can be difficult for individuals with disabilities to get screened for cancer.

Data shows that people with CP and other disabilities are much less likely to get mammograms, pap smears, colonoscopies, and other important screenings that can detect cancer before it spreads.

For example, a CDC study found that 57% of adults aged 50-75 without disabilities got screened for colorectal cancer in 2013, compared to 49% of adults of the same age with disabilities.

Common barriers to cancer screening for adults with disabilities include:

  • Access to medical care
  • Cognitive difficulties
  • Communication issues
  • Lack of height-adjustable examination tables
  • Medical personnel not being trained on proper patient lifting, transferring, and positioning techniques
  • Negative staff attitudes
  • No transportation
  • Physical limitations
  • Trouble scheduling an appointment

Because of these obstacles, any cancer that’s present in the body may not be found until later on, when it is harder to treat.

“Patients with disabilities tend to present with later stage disease, have reduced treatment options, and a higher cancer mortality than their non-disabled counterparts.”

The Lancet Oncology journal, April 2022

To help combat lower screening rates, it’s critical that health care professionals receive proper training on how to test individuals with disabilities for cancer.

Tips for Reducing Your Cancer Risk

Unfortunately, there isn’t a single way to prevent all cancers from forming. However, people with CP can take specific actions to help lower their risk of developing common types of cancer.

Some of these preventative measures include:

  • Avoiding tobacco. ​​Tobacco has been linked to esophageal, lung, mouth, throat, and various other types of cancers. Even unintentional exposure to secondhand smoke can increase your risk of lung cancer, regardless of whether you have CP.
  • Being screened for cancer. Regular self-exams and cancer screenings increase the odds of discovering the disease early, when treatment is more likely to be successful. You can find a list of recommended cancer screenings on the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force website.
  • Eating a well-balanced diet. Although people with CP sometimes have difficulty eating, proper nutrition might help reduce your cancer risk. Limiting processed meats, for example, can decrease the incidence of certain cancers, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
  • Engaging in physical activity. Regular exercise can help lower the risk of some hormone-related and digestive cancers, such as breast cancer and colon cancer. Depending on your mobility, activities like arm cycling, chair aerobics, and yoga can be fun ways for individuals with CP to stay active.
  • Getting enough sleep. According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, long-term sleep disruptions can increase the odds of breast, colon, ovarian, and prostate cancers. Thankfully, there are specific treatments for those who experience sleeping problems associated with CP.
  • Seeking regular medical care. Like anyone else, people with CP should have yearly physical exams. Depending on your family history, your doctor may recommend further screening, including genetic tests like BRCA, which can be used to check for genetic mutations linked to breast and ovarian cancers.

Managing Life With Cerebral Palsy

In addition to being vulnerable to certain types of cancer, people with cerebral palsy may have other health complications that can affect their quality of life for years to come.

The Birth Injury Justice Center can connect you with financial, medical, emotional, and other support resources to help you or a loved one manage life with cerebral palsy.

You can also contact our team right now at (800) 914-1562 — we’re standing by 24/7 to serve you.

Birth Injury Support Team

The Birth Injury Justice Center was founded in 2003 by a team of legal professionals to educate and empower victims and families affected by birth injuries. Our team is devoted to providing you with the best resources and legal information for all types of birth injuries.

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