Most Kids With Cancer Well-Adjusted
Children With Cancer Resilient, 'Flourishing' Psychologically
Sept. 21, 2007 - The amazing resilience of most children with cancer isn't
an illusion -- psychologically, they're doing better than most kids.
That's the surprising conclusion of St. Jude's Children's Hospital
psychologist Sean Phipps, PhD.
"We see them as a flourishing population that has adapted to the stress
of having cancer and undergoing treatment," Phipps says in a news release.
"They become quite resilient to the long- and short-term emotional and
physical effects of their disease and the treatments."
Phipps investigated why kids with cancer report unusually low levels of
depression and report fewer physical complaints than kids without cancer report. Certainly,
he thought, these self-reports were really self-illusion.
At least that was Phipps' original theory. He found that kids with cancer
tend to adapt to the stresses of their situation by adopting a "repressive
adaptive style" in which they think of themselves as well-adjusted,
self-controlled, and content. Their behavior becomes organized around
protecting this self-image.
Such children aren't just "faking good," Phipps found. In fact, they
underreport physical symptoms and minimize their severity or impact.
"Is there a physiological price to pay for the low distress reported by
those children with a repressive adaptive style? Based on these preliminary
findings, the answer appears to be a tentative 'No,'" Phipps writes in the
advance online edition of the Journal of Pediatric Psychology.
Instead, Phipps finds this style to be one of the pathways to
"Repressive coping is identified as a specific pathway to resilience,
among others, including hardiness, self-enhancement, and the transient
experience of positive emotion," he notes.
That helps explain why we so often find inspiration in the way children deal
with life-threatening cancer.
"People coping successfully with severe stress seek naturally to create
positive emotional states, both to gain relief from stress and to gather
strength to face adversity," Phipps writes. "There may be aspects of
the childhood cancer experiences in general that are associated with an
increased frequency of positive affects, even if these are transitory, and
embedded in a context that is also threatening."