updated 9/5/2006 7:47:52 AM ET 2006-09-05T11:47:52

Women who survived cancer during childhood are at risk of premature menopause, researchers report Tuesday.

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Some cancer treatments can immediately harm girls’ reproductive development. But with most childhood cancer patients now surviving, a bigger question is whether girls whose ovaries seemed OK at first actually have lingering damage that will trigger menopause before age 40. If so, the risk could affect their family planning as well as their health in middle age, because early menopause can trigger thinning bones and other problems.

Earlier studies have suggested these patients do have a higher risk of early menopause. Researchers from Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center went a step farther Tuesday in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, pinpointing who’s at highest risk.

They compared 2,800 women who survived childhood cancer with 1,000 sisters of cancer survivors. After excluding those who underwent ovary-removing surgery, they found 8 percent of cancer survivors experienced early menopause, compared with less than 1 percent of the sisters.

The risk was highest — 30 percent — for survivors who had received radiation to the lower abdomen plus so-called “alkylating” chemotherapy agents, drugs such as cyclophosphamide.

However, Harvard researchers cautioned in an accompanying editorial that the 30 percent figure may be an underestimate, because the study included mostly women who hadn’t yet reached age 40.

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