Cancer patients underestimate effect of cancer on their children

In collaboration with the Press Association

Researchers have found that children with a parent who has recently been diagnosed with cancer can experience post-traumatic stress symptoms (PTSS), and that parents often do not realise how much stress their child is under.

While PTSS do not always develop into full-blown post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the symptoms can lead to emotional problems later in life.

Health scientists from the University Medical Centre in Groningen, the Netherlands, revealed the results of a study involving 49 adolescents during the first year after their parent's cancer diagnosis at the European Cancer Conference this week.

Both the children and their parents completed three questionnaires over the course of the year and research fellow Dr Gea Huizinga revealed that 29 per cent of the children reported PTSS after the first assessment, which took place within four months of the parent's cancer diagnosis.

The proportion fell to 16 per cent after six months, and again to 14 per cent after a year.

Dr Huizinga commented: "The two studies together suggest that PTSS related to parental cancer fluctuate over time, decreasing during the first year after diagnosis and resurging during the years following."

The study showed that children with more PTSS tended to also have more emotional and behavioural problems, suggesting that children with existing psychosocial problems may find it harder to cope with a parent's cancer.

It also revealed that parents with cancer underestimate the stress experienced by their offspring, as they tended to report fewer emotional, behavioural and cognitive problems than the children themselves.

Meanwhile, the spouses of cancer patients did not notice any problems in their children during the initial months after their partner's diagnosis, although they started to pick up on problems later in the year.

"The results could indicate that the level of emotional and behavioural problems of children with more severe PTSS is underestimated by the ill parents and even more so by their partners," Dr Huizinga said.

"It seems that ill parents were better able to judge the situation. They may be more alert to changes in their children's behaviour than spouses because of a sense of guilt over their illness," the expert added.

Lucy Manship, a cancer information nurse at Cancer Research UK, said: "A diagnosis of cancer for a family member is a stressful event for the whole family. This study reminds health care professionals how important it is to make sure there is adequate support, particularly for young people.

"Twelve to 16-year-olds who have a parent with cancer might like to know about a website called 'Riprap' which is there to help them understand how this experience may affect them and their family."