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The Stress of Surviving Childhood Cancer: Childhood Cancer and PTSD

Information for Survivors and Parents

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Updated January 25, 2009

Many people wonder whether childhood cancer and PTSD are related. This is not surprising given that, each year, cancer affects thousands of children and their families. In fact, for every 10,000 children in the United States, approximately 1 to 2 will develop cancer, with leukemia being one of the most common type of cancer among children. Over the past two decades, advances in cancer treatments have fortunately led to a many children being able to survive their battle with cancer; however, that may be only the first step. Having cancer can have long-lasting effects on the mental health of a child and his or her parents.

Childhood Cancer and PTSD

Child cancer survivors are at risk to develop PTSD. Approximately 5% to 21% of childhood cancer survivors have been found to have a diagnosis of PTSD as a result of their cancer.

A child's cancer may also be traumatic for the child's parents. It is not surprising then that high rates of PTSD have also been found among the parents of childhood cancer survivors. Specifically, approximately 6% to 25% of parents of childhood cancer survivors have been found to have PTSD.

Even if a child or his or her parents do not develop PTSD, they many still experience a number of the distressing symptoms of PTSD. Mothers, as compared to fathers, seem to more likely to experience post-traumatic stress symptoms.

Risk Factors for PTSD Due to Childhood Cancer

A number of factors have been found to be associated with having Girls who have survived childhood cancer seem to be at greater risk than boys for developing PTSD or post-traumatic stress symptoms. Having minimal social support, a poor family environment, and the previous experience of stressful life events have also all been linked to PTSD and post-traumatic stress among childhood cancer survivors and their parents.

Coping with Cancer

Although cancer treatments may successfully eradicate a child's cancer, they do not take away the stress associated with having cancer. A diagnosis of cancer and its treatment may be traumatic for both the individual with cancer and also for that person's loved ones. Having cancer, or having a loved one with cancer, may make it feel as though nothing is under your control. However, it is important to remember that there are some things that are under your control. There are things that you can do to cope with the stress of having or caring for someone with cancer. The National Cancer Institute provides a wealth of information on coping with cancer, as well as psychological difficulties stemming from the diagnosis and treatment of cancer.

Sources:

Bruce, M. (2006). A systematic and conceptual review of posttraumatic stress in childhood cancer survivors and their parents. Clinical Psychology Review, 26, 233-256.

National Cancer Institute (2005). National Cancer Institute Fact Sheet: National Cancer Institute Research on Childhood Cancers. U.S. National Institutes of Health.

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