A study published in Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention suggests a correlation between gestational substance abuse and specific types of cancers in children. Researchers interviewed parents of children diagnosed with cancer before turning 18, gathering data on maternal alcohol, tobacco, and illicit drug use during pregnancy.
The analysis, involving responses from 3,145 unique families, revealed that 14% reported gestational use of tobacco products, 4% reported using illicit drugs like marijuana or cocaine, and 2% reported consuming alcohol in amounts greater than moderate. The results indicated a correlation between prenatal illicit drug use and a higher prevalence of intracranial embryonal tumors (prevalence ratio = 1.94; 95% CI, 1.05-3.58), particularly medulloblastoma (prevalence ratio = 1.82) and supratentorial primitive neuroectodermal tumors (prevalence ratio = 2.66). Additionally, there was an increased prevalence of retinoblastoma (prevalence ratio = 3.11; 95% CI, 1.2-8.08) associated with prenatal illicit drug use.
The findings underscore the importance of educating expectant mothers about the risks of gestational substance use, particularly given the growing trend of using cannabis to alleviate severe morning sickness, according to researchers. Courtney E. Wimberly, MSc, research program leader in the division of neuro-epidemiology at Duke University Medical Center, emphasized the significance of this issue, noting that childhood cancer remains a leading cause of nonaccidental death in the United States. Despite advancements in treatment, there has been a concerning rise in childhood cancer incidence, which varies among racial and ethnic groups and subtypes. While several genetic risk factors for childhood cancer have been identified, there are few modifiable risk factors to date.
Wimberly discussed the significance of the findings, their potential implications, and strategies for clinicians to communicate these risks to their patients. The study was motivated by the quest to uncover additional modifiable risk factors for childhood cancer and to investigate the hypothesis that maternal substance use during pregnancy could impact fetal development and increase the risk of childhood cancer.
Previous research has primarily investigated the link between maternal prenatal substance use and childhood cancer, with a focus on tobacco and alcohol use during pregnancy. However, there has been limited attention given to illicit drug use, partly due to small sample sizes in studies and potential bias in self-reported data on substance use during pregnancy. Despite reluctance to disclose such information, there is evidence linking illicit drug use during pregnancy to certain neurological disorders persisting into adulthood. Hence, there’s a belief that it might also influence childhood cancer risk, although its exact impact remains unclear. Identifying additional modifiable exposures that could decrease childhood cancer rates is crucial, not only for preventing childhood cancer but also for promoting the overall health of the U.S. population.
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