First ever study of parental role in children's cancer treatment

A team of Detroit-based researchers, led by a behavioral scientist from the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute, has launched a unique study to learn how parents can best help their children deal with painful procedures required for cancer treatment.

The recently unveiled research program – “Parental Roles in Pediatric Cancer Pain and Survivorship” – is funded by a $1 million grant from the National Cancer Institute and is designed to answer a crucial question in the treatment of pediatric cancer: How should parents go about the highly challenging task of helping their kids weather difficult and sometimes frightening cancer therapies?

The breakthrough program, the first of its kind in U.S. pediatric cancer research, is utilizing state-of-the-art video technology to observe and record 150 different pediatric cancer procedures, during which parents do their best to help their children undergo rigorous cancer-fighting procedures such as lumbar punctures and bone marrow aspirations. More than two-dozen families have already been recorded. To help ascertain the effectiveness of these parental efforts, researchers are collecting physiological data by measuring substances in saliva, blood and spinal fluid enabling them to gauge the stress that the children and their parents are feeling. The pediatric cancer patients involved in the study are being treated at Children’s Hospital of Michigan.

“Medical practitioners have known for a long time that families differ widely in terms of their resilience and their ability to cope with the stress of pediatric cancer,” said Terrance L. Albrecht, Ph.D., the lead investigator in the study. “But until quite recently, researchers haven’t had the technology required to directly observe parent-child interactions, and learn how families deal with the situation of cancer as it is actually occurring.”

“Better management of cancer by families will result in better outcomes for the patients. Having the cameras rolling during the actual procedures, allows us to observe crucially important family interactions on the spot,” said Dr. Albrecht, a behavioral scientist who directs the Karmanos Program in Communication and Behavioral Oncology. Learning more about how parents and kids deal with cancer issues could have a major impact on the quality of “survivorship,” as children grow through adolescence toward adulthood, Dr. Albrecht said.

“In some cases, children are traumatized by therapies that can be pretty toxic and quite painful – and these events often result in deficits that can affect learning or lead to psychological problems later on in life,” said Dr. Albrecht, a widely published Karmanos scientist. “If we can learn more about what goes on in families during stressful procedures, we stand a good chance of being able to advise parents on how to help their children most and hopefully avoid problems both during treatment and later on.”

Albrecht, who is also a professor in the Department of Family Medicine at Wayne State University, said the three-year study is just getting underway. So far, 27 children and their parents have been studied. “It will be a while before trends and patterns become clear,” she said, “but we feel pretty hopeful that we will eventually be able to recommend optimal interventions to help both parents and children overcome cancer in the best possible way.”

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