While things are far from perfect, cancer treatment has come a long way. More people of all ages can expect to beat a variety of cancers and go on to live happy, healthy lives.
But something easy to overlook is that all these people who survive cancer face special challenges – and that’s particularly true of children.
Research shows that people who develop cancer at a young age may endure problems that last into their teenage years and adulthood that are directly related to having faced a life-threatening illness early in life.
When it comes to children and young adults who have cancer, parents and caregivers need to know there are therapeutic tips that equip these youngsters for happiness and good health later on. You want to introduce and sustain certain kinds of emotional support, starting with diagnosis and going all the way through to remission and beyond.
Read on to discover the key concepts that can improve the life of a child cancer survivor into adulthood.
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To begin with the obvious, it’s important to consider quality of treatment, the doctors and the medical facility when treating a child or adolescent for cancer.
But assuming that’s all squared away, there are other, intangible things a child needs as part of his or her cancer treatment…things that parents and caretakers need to provide.
A diagnosis of cancer is deeply upsetting and frightening, but hope and a positive attitude toward the situation have been shown to improve treatment odds as well as improve the quality of life for children once they beat cancer and grow into adulthood.
Importance of maintaining positive expectations
A study published in the journal Psycho-Oncology in 2005 assessed the health-related quality of life (HRQoL) in relation to cognitive coping mechanisms in young adults who had had cancer as children. For simplicity I’m just going to call HRQoL “quality of life.”
Using both the Physical Component Scale and the Mental Component Scale of the RAND-36 (also called the SF-36), the researchers compared the quality of life of young adult cancer survivors to that of people their age who had not been through an illness or traumatic event.
The SF-36 is a short survey of quality of life as assessed by the patients themselves. It’s used as the standard for monitoring and assessing care outcomes.
The researchers discovered that the cancer survivors reported a lower quality of life than their peers on both the Physical Component and the Mental Component Scale.
What’s interesting though, is that the survivors’ cognitive coping strategies played a large role in their mental component scores. Positive coping is associated with a higher quality of life score than negative coping.1
Positive coping means the survivor has positive expectations about the future course of their disease. They may also perceive their illness as a challenge they overcame.
In contrast to that, when survivors engage in negative coping they may see their illness as a traumatic event from which they barely escaped. They feel pessimistic about their future, as if the disease is waiting in the wings to attack them again.
The strong association between coping styles and quality of life leads the researchers to conclude that a positive coping strategy is crucial to young adult cancer survivors’ quality of life as they grow into adults.
How wish-granting organizations help children with cancer
There are many organizations worldwide that work to make the wishes of children with life-threatening medical conditions, including cancer, come true. These organizations give eligible kids treats like a sweet sixteen party, the experience of being a police officer or firefighter for a day, or a trip to Disney World.
Research shows that these wish-fulfilling experiences are more than just something “nice” people can do for sick kids.
A study published in the May 2016 issue of Quality of Life Research journal reviewed the effects of such organizations, specifically the Make-A-Wish foundation, on the mental health and quality of life for children suffering from life-threatening cancer.
The researchers randomly divided a group of 66 children between the ages of 5 and 12 with an initial diagnosis of life-threatening cancer into two groups.
One group was assigned Make-A-Wish intervention and the control group was put on a wait list for the foundation’s services.
After about six months the foundation granted the wishes of the children in the first group.
Researchers again assessed their well-being five weeks after the experience and found that these kids showed a significant reduction in general distress, depression and anxiety as well as an improved health-related quality of life (HRQoL) and an increase in positive affect (i.e. positive emotional responses to situations).
The control group showed a decrease in positive affect and no significant changes in any of the other measured symptoms.2
The researchers concluded, “These findings emphasize the role of hope and positive emotions in fostering the well-being of children who suffer from serious illnesses.”
Why a positive attitude is so important
for both patients and parents
A study published in the Journal of Healthy Psychology noted that children and young adolescents who are diagnosed with cancer are isolated from peers and focused on survival during the formative years when children are developing their worldview and the ways in which they interact with others.3
By the time children have gone into remission and are ready to join the world outside hospitals and treatment centers they may have formed the conviction that they are different than their peers.
They may also hold different priorities and have a greater maturity and self-awareness than other teenagers that makes it difficult for them to understand each other.
The sense of isolation they felt while undergoing treatment may continue into adulthood, causing psychological and social adjustment problems such as the inability to interact with others, mood disorders, and a reduced quality of life.
But research also shows that children and adolescents who receive positive support from their family, close friends and psychologists/psychiatrists have a higher psychological quality of life than those who did not have such support.4
Because children are still developing their approach to the world it’s imperative that parents and caregivers provide hope and positivity to children battling cancer. Children may not be able to mentally or emotionally see the end of the tunnel and can start to tune out the world and feel hopeless.
This in turn can cause them to not comply with treatment and to give up, which can be devastating for their odds of survival.
They need the adults around them to stay strong and positive so that when they come through to the other side they have the mental and emotional tools they need to grow into mentally and physically healthy adults.
Perhaps we can look forward to a day when neither children nor any of us have to worry about cancer. I love bringing readers new cancer treatment breakthroughs, and in our last issue I was able to do that. If you missed the article, it’s reprinted again just below.