Parents of Kids with Cancer and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder

When a cancer diagnosis is given, it seems natural that stress levels would go up. Endless decisions about treatments and specialist choices, navigating normal life while enduring treatment, and possibly chronic pain, can all elevate stress for the patient.

But what if the patient is not you, but your child? While any parent readily describes a seriously sick child as their worst nightmare, does that nightmare translate to stress for the parent?

A recent study by Jurgergs, Long, Ticona and Phipps of the Division of Behavioral Medicine at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital looked at the posttraumatic stress symptoms (PTSS) of parents of children with cancer. The researchers examined stress levels as a function of time since diagnosis, treatment status, and relapse history, compared with parents of healthy children.

The participants of the study were a group of parents of 199 children with cancer. The sample was cross-sectional and included parents of children at various diagnoses and treatment phases. The children ranged from those currently involved in therapy to those who were long-term survivors of cancer.

The parents of children with cancer were compared with a group of parents of 108 healthy children, obtained using acquaintance control methods. The parents all completed a standardized self-report questionnaire that measured PTSS.

Within the group of parents of children with cancer, the results showed that parental PTSS varied dependent on treatment status and time since diagnosis. The parents of children undergoing treatment showed the same levels of PTSS as those parents in the control group.

Parents of children who had finished treatment showed a significantly lower level of PTSS than did parents of healthy children. Also, parents of long-term survivors showed lower levels of PTSS than did controls, while parents of recently diagnosed children had similar levels of PTSS as the control group.

Parents whose children had suffered a relapse reported significantly higher levels of PTSS and were much more often found to be suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder.

The study’s results indicate that in general, parents of children with cancer did not show elevated levels of PTSS as compared to parents of healthy children; but time since diagnosis, child treatment status and relapse history are significant factors in parent PTSS.

Only parents of children who were experiencing a relapse were at an increased risk of PTSD.

The results of this study indicate that enduring the trauma of a child’ diagnosis of cancer does not necessarily guarantee a PTSS diagnosis for the parent. The study’s results are different, however, from existing information about how a child’s illness affects a parent. Further studies need to be done to examine the relationship between a child’s illness and PTSS in the parent.