Abusing kids causes more than long-term mental damage

Someone sent me this study – “Does Childhood Misfortune Increase Cancer Risk in Adulthood?”:

Objective: To address the inconsistent findings on whether childhood misfortune increases adult cancer occurrence. Methods: This study uses longitudinal data from the National Survey of Midlife Development in the United States (MIDUS) that first sampled 3,032 respondents aged 25 to 74 during 1995-1996. A series of logistic regressions were estimated separately for men and women to test whether the effect of childhood misfortune on adult cancer was largely cumulative or specific to the type or profile of misfortune.

There were three research questions that the authors wished to answer:

  1. Does childhood misfortune increase cancer risk in adulthood?
  2. Is the effect of childhood misfortune on adult cancer risk largely cumulative or specific to the type or profile of misfortune?
  3. What pathways link childhood misfortune to cancer occurrence during adulthood?

This is how childhood misfortune was measured:

(1) family receipt of welfare or Aid to Dependent Children assistance for a period of 6 months or longer; (2) self-report of being financially worse off than other families; (3) less than a high school education for father (or mother if father was absent); (4) lack of male in household; (5) parental divorce; (6) parental death; (7-10) physical abuse by father, mother, sibling or other; (11-14) emotional abuse by father, mother, sibling, or other; and (15-16) self-report of poor mental or physical health at age 16.

Without getting too much into the weeds, the authors wanted to see if any of these factors were related to an increased risk of getting cancer. They also wanted to see if the effects of any of these “misfortunes” were cumulative, or additive over time. Even the idea of this depresses me. It’s not bad enough that you have “misfortune”, such as emotional or physical abuse. The hypothesis of this study was that these bad things also had the extra effect of making you more likely to get cancer.

It turns out some do. It also turns out there are some complex relationships between gender and how these effects play out.

Men who were physically abused by their fathers were more likely to get cancer. Women who were physically abused by their mothers were also more likely to get cancer. But if there was frequent mental and physical abuse, then it didn’t matter what the sex of the perpetrator was – it led to an increased risk for cancer.

There are, of course, limitations to this study. Any study of this nature is subject to what we call recall bias. People with cancer may remember things differently than people without cancer. There’s also the possibility that potential participants with the most misfortune were jailed or even killed, making them inaccessible for the study.

I just don’t care, though. It’s not like we need any further reason to try and prevent children from being abused. But this study points to the fact that childhood misfortunes, especially ones that occur over and over, can have not only a mental cost, but a physical one as well. There seems to be some link between stress and long-term damage to their person that can lead to cancer. Abusing children not only hurts their souls; it hurts their bodies, too.


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