When the parent of a child with cancer has already experienced a traumatic life event prior to hearing of the child’s cancer diagnosis, he or she is more psychologically vulnerable to the diagnosis, according to a study from Karolinska Institutet.
The risk of developing more severe symptoms of post-traumatic stress (PTS) is increased during the early stage of the child’s cancer, and this risk is particularly apparent in mothers.
The researchers set out to find any causal factors that — in addition to the child’s illness — may contribute to serious traumatic stress symptoms in parents. The findings indicate the need to develop psychosocial cancer care that takes into account the parents’ individual vulnerability and previous life history. These two factors play a large role in how parents manage to cope with the crisis caused by the child’s illness.
The research is part of a larger study that was designed to help researchers understand the psychosocial consequences following a child’s cancer diagnosis, identify stress-related psychosocial risk factors, and support the needs of the families.
The study involved 169 parents (97 mothers, 72 fathers) of 103 children diagnosed with cancer. The children were between the ages of one month and 20 years (median age, 5.9 years). Among the parents, 20.7 percent had an immigrant background.
Post-traumatic stress symptoms were measured through standardized self-assessment methods.
The experience of past traumatic life events predicted more severe symptoms of post-traumatic stress measured in the study.
Furthermore, it was discovered that compared with fathers, mothers consistently showed higher symptom levels in all measured dimensions of PTS. A previous assumption that older parents, and parents with immigrant backgrounds, would be more vulnerable to experiencing cancer-related stress was not supported by the results.
The study suggests that the care and follow-up of parents of children diagnosed with cancer should be individually adapted.
Psychological support to the family would be more effective if attention is paid to the parents’ lifetime history of prior traumatic experiences, and the study demonstrates how it can be done, said Krister Boman, Ph.D., one of the researchers.
The study is published in the journal PLOS One.
Source: Karolinska Institutet