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New hope for hearing loss with chemotherapy

Chemo is bad stuff. Not only does it make you feel like crap, but it can damage your heart, kidneys, and nerves. Some chemo drugs even harm your hearing, a little known fact I learned in pharmacology class.

That fact came back to me as I took my friend who was dying from brain cancer to get her hearing checked. Why did she bother- was it denial, or her attention to detail? Whatever, I was there for her. She died soon after, of a cancer that is most common in children. Like most children with that cancer, she was getting a chemo drug that damages the inner cells of the ear, the ones that bring sounds to the brain.

In adults, who can compensate anyway with defects in hearing (don’t we all, as we age?), its just one more thing to deal with in cancer. For kids who haven’t even learned to talk, hearing loss can hamper language and limit potential. And kids are much more sensitive to the damage done by cisplatin and related chemotherapies. So notes Kay Chang, MD, an ear, nose, and throat specialist who has worked for six years to revise the way hearing loss is quantified. His new method, now validated in a published study in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, will help oncologists and audiologists collaborate better to know how much hearing is lost in the efforts to save young lives, and help prepare children for life with proper hearing aids.

Chang notes that heart or kidney damage will limit aggressive chemo efforts. With hearing loss, the health team will “press on” to save a child. Nevertheless, there are ways to juggle how the drugs are given: perhaps by giving divided doses, or optimizing use of the existing protective agent-perhaps, even find new ones. With this improved strategy, future studies should be able to help preserve hearing in the youngest cancer patients.

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