How Childhood Cancer Affects the Mental Health of Children and their Families

In a podcast for Catch Psychotherapy, POGO Interlink Nurse Tina Hamalainen discusses the psychosocial impacts of a childhood cancer diagnosis on the child, and their family and school community. Here are some highlights, published with permission of Catch Psychotherapy.

The Impacts POGO Interlink Nurses Witness

Impact on Parents

Cancer means different things to different people and it can be very stressful to hear those words about your own child; it’s one of the biggest stressors that a family ever experiences. And along with that are many emotions and feelings which include fear of losing their child, sadness, anxiety, depression, fear of recurrence. Suddenly their lives have turned upside down. Anything normal has changed; families are in a situation that they didn’t prepare for, including potentially stopping work to care for their ill child.

Impact on Siblings

Siblings experience a lot of the same emotions as the ill child or their parent—the same fear, worry, anger, guilt. It’s a very common theme for siblings to feel neglected or abandoned; and then they feel guilty for feeling that way. There’re so many mixed emotions that these children and adolescents are trying to process.

Impact on the Child/Youth with Cancer

Kids and adolescents experience social isolation. They’re suddenly not able to attend school, for example. School is their norm, it’s their place to be in society. And oftentimes, especially at the early stages of diagnosis, in-person school is not possible.

Depending on the type of cancer, if they had a brain tumour for example, radiation therapy can have impacts on their memory or their cognitive functioning, where they might need academic accommodations.

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Impact of Schooling

Despite a cancer diagnosis, or maybe because of it, for some families, the normalcy of school allows them to focus on the future—future goals and academic achievements. The family might have concerns about academic success. Parents worry about how their child could possibly continue going to school while on treatment. The child can feel great stress about not seeing their friends every day and being forgotten or missing out, there is anxiety about keeping up academically and graduating high school with their peers.

Impact on the School Community

For the teacher, it might be their first experience of having a child in their classroom with cancer. And at that same time, they’re being bombarded with questions from their other students about this child’s diagnosis and they do not have the experience/knowledge to support their students.

Impact of Recovery

We can underestimate emotional recovery which can linger longer than physical recovery with fears of relapse or a secondary cancer, and adjusting to a “new normal.”

How POGO Interlink Nurses Support the Family’s Psychosocial Needs

Support for the School Community

  • They encourage classmates to think about how they can support their friend in treatment over the weeks and months to come; what things would they do or not do to welcome them back to school?
  • They encourage classmates to stay connected by video calling their friend, or placing a drop box in the classroom to collect letters, cards and jokes they’ve written or pictures they have drawn.
  • They provide classmates, teachers and siblings’ classes with education and information about the child’s cancer, and its treatment and impact. Being able to educate not only the teachers, but classmates as well—providing information in preparation for that student to come back—is really important, and it ends up helping the ill child.

Related Content: A Reflection from POGO Interlink Nurses: COVID-19 Reveals Benefits of Home Visits for Families of Children with Cancer

Support for Learning Needs

  • They facilitate home instruction when the child’s treatment keeps them out of school.
  • They work together with families on a plan to re-integrate the child to school.
  • They work with the child and school administration to set goals for earning credits and graduating, exploring options like summer school and online courses.
  • They help advocate for supports for children and adolescents who need accommodations.

Support for the Family Unit

  • They do home visits to see firsthand what the family is going through.
  • They provide family-centred care that instills hope by trying to address the needs of every member of the family unit.
  • They connect students experiencing late effects that hinder their academic success to the POGO School and Work Transitions Program, where POGO Counsellors help them get the support they need at various academic levels or to make the transition from high school to appropriate work.

The above tips were published with permission of Catch Psychotherapy. Listen to the full 30-minute podcast with POGO Interlink Nurse Tina Hamalainen and Janet Morrison of Catch Psychotherapy here: Episode 16 | How Childhood Cancer Affects the Mental Health of Children and Their Families w/ Tina Hamalainen

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