More than 12,000 children under the age of 20 are diagnosed with cancer each year. Although these children and their parents undergo a tremendous amount of stress during this time, researchers at Nationwide Children’s Hospital found that most children are able to cope with their diagnosis without experiencing high levels of depression or anxiety. In a study published this year in the Journal of Pediatric Psychology, researchers found a group of 75 kids with cancer adjusted surprisingly well within the first year of diagnosis.
“Parents tend to have the more difficult time handling the diagnosis,” said Cynthia Gerhardt, PhD, psychologist at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, whose research focuses on the risk and resilience factors connected with family adjustment to childhood chronic illnesses. “Cancer does not mean the same thing to kids that it does to adults. Kids are not as aware of some of the connotations of cancer, and a diagnosis of childhood cancer is typically more treatable than cancer in adults.”
Children who have the most difficult time adjusting to cancer are those who may be predisposed to depression and anxiety, due to challenging or negative temperamental characteristics. Kids are also more likely to experience symptoms of depression and anxiety if they have a more severe condition, particularly cancers that affect the central nervous system, such as brain tumors, which can hinder a child’s cognitive functioning and the ability to use adaptive coping skills.
“Some children may have more symptoms of depression and anxiety when they are first diagnosed,” said Dr. Gerhardt, also an associate professor in Pediatrics and Psychology at The Ohio State University College of Medicine. “That may have more to do with them being generally tired and nauseous when they first begin treatment. Once kids get used to their treatment and adjust to a new schedule, they typically bounce back and adjust quite well after the first year.”
Kids who are more likely to have depression or who have a difficult time adjusting to treatment can apply different coping strategies to manage their emotions. They should be taught to problem solve, express themselves and learn to think about situations that make them feel sad or anxious in a different, positive way. This does not mean that a child diagnosed with cancer automatically needs therapy. Simply talking about their feelings with family, friends or a healthcare provider may be enough to help some children adjust. The way the family is handling the situation can also have a profound affect on whether or not the child becomes depressed or anxious. The better the family can adjust to the diagnosis, the more likely the child will find ways to cope.
This study is one of the few where researchers have examined the extent to which stress, personality and the ability to cope with the diagnosis all play in a role in the adjustment of children with cancer. Stress and anxiety levels were measured by the participants’ mothers, and although there may be some stressors parents are unaware of, this study demonstrates that even young children can find ways to stay positive during a difficult time.