Young cancer survivors who retell their life stories through photography experience a significant increase in self-esteem and self-efficacy, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Houston and the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Milan, Italy.
Children and teens with cancer often feel isolated and distant from the experience of their healthy peers, say the researchers. This easy-to-implement and low-cost intervention allows them a safe space to retell their story and promote confidence in themselves.
“The objective is to reorganize their cancer narrative, or the story they tell themselves about their experience, and better accept cancer as part of their life story,” said study co-author Dr. Emanuela Saita, associate professor of psychology at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart.
For the study, 18 leukemia survivors — diagnosed as teenagers — participated in the Framed Portrait Experience, an intervention which integrates therapeutic photography and re-enactment therapy. The project began two years after the young people had received their final treatments.
During the project, the participants were empowered to express emotions connected to their illness in order to make meaning of their experience. Working with a portrait photographer who was also a licensed social worker, the survivors chose three settings to take portraits that integrated meaningful objects and memories to represent their past, present and future.
Study co-author Dr. Chiara Acquati, assistant professor at the UH Graduate College of Social Work, recalled a young survivor who took her “past” portrait alongside her father fixing cars.
“Her father was the one who stood by her side during her cancer treatment, so he was an important part of her cancer journey,” said Acquati.
That survivor’s “present” portrait was one of reflection, taken deep in thought along a serene riverbank. She dressed as a street performer who makes people laugh for her “future” photo.
“The goal is to retell their stories in contexts meaningful to them. It can be very emotional and challenging, but we hope that by looking back from a distance now that their cancer treatments are over, they can move forward with their lives,” Acquati said.
Following the photo shoot, the pictures are printed and used during a clinical interview to guide the survivors’ reflection about the changes they experienced as a result of cancer, and how those changes relate and integrate into their narrative of past, present, and future.
While the researchers acknowledge the small sample size, they said they are encouraged that these study participants now see themselves as better able to manage problems and more equipped to face obstacles.
Source: University of Houston