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Pediatric Supportive Care (PDQ®): Supportive care - Health Professional Information [NCI] - Psychological Adjustment

Treatment of childhood cancer is a highly stressful experience, challenging and disruptive to children and their family members. It is therefore assumed that children undergoing cancer treatment are at significantly higher risk for depression, anxiety, and other indicators of psychological distress. However, the empirical evidence to support this assumption is weak. Overall, studies suggest that children treated for cancer and children who are long-term survivors of cancer experience few significant psychological adjustment problems.[1,2,3]

There is evidence that children experience distress during the cancer treatment process. Distress appears to be most significant early in therapy, typically when frequent hospitalizations are necessary, with a pattern of less distress occurring over time.[4,5] One group of 39 families of children newly diagnosed with leukemia was compared with a group of 49 families of healthy children. While parents and the children treated for cancer reported higher levels of distress immediately following diagnosis, these levels of distress decreased over 4 years of follow-up, and there were no significant differences in psychological distress compared with the healthy comparison cohort.[4] Similar findings have been reported across cultures.[6]

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The validity of obtaining accurate reports of psychologic distress in this population has been questioned. One investigation of whether psychological defensiveness might mask the reporting of depression and other symptoms of psychological distress studied 107 children treated for cancer and 422 healthy controls who completed a series of measures of depression and anxiety.[7][Level of evidence: II] Children treated for cancer reported significantly fewer depressive symptoms than did healthy children, and defensive style was not related to report of depression. Another study of 205 children and 321 parents of children with either cancer, asthma, or no significant health problem also found no significant levels of depression in children treated for cancer. However, parents of children with cancer attributed more cheerful characteristics to their children than did the parents of children in the other groups.[8][Level of evidence: II]

Studies have reported no differences from controls on the following measures:

  • Self-esteem.[9,10]
  • Hopefulness.[9]
  • Depression, anxiety, or loneliness.[10]

One group of investigators [10] found that teachers perceived children with cancer as more social and less aggressive, and peers rated them as less aggressive and having greater social acceptance than other peers. It may make a difference who is reporting: parents of children report more limitations in their children than the children themselves report,[11] although children do report lower satisfaction with athletic competence than do their peers.[10]

Differences in Adjustment

Diagnosis and type of treatment appear to make a difference in adjustment in specific subgroups of children with cancer.[12]

Solid tumors

Children treated for solid tumors not involving the central nervous system (CNS) appear to have minimal psychological distress, and this is maintained after treatment.[13]

1|2|3|4|5

WebMD Public Information from the National Cancer Institute

Last Updated: February 25, 2014
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.
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