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PTSD Risks in Children with Cancer

Mental health complications are expected as part of the health complications individuals face when diagnosed with cancer. In fact, many oncology clinics provide not only chemotherapy and other forms of treatment for cancer, but also provide mental health services in collaboration. For young cancer patients, especially in children with cancer, the use of mental health services may be the most vital part of care as many children develop post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD, when facing a cancer diagnosis and treatment.

When caring for your child during a cancer diagnosis, the discussions with your child’s pediatric oncologist should include those about the risks associated with PTSD. Unfortunately, for some doctors the risks of PTSD in children with cancer are not readily recognized as doctor’s feel this diagnosis can not be sustained since a child typically does not have complete knowledge about their condition to develop an association to a traumatic event. However, in the more modern treatment of pediatric cancers, this is simply not the case and, when your child is living with a cancer diagnosis, you can expect there will be some risk for PTSD to develop.

PTSD can be prevented, even treated, in a child who has cancer by working with the child’s specific personality traits. Typically, in children who, by their very nature and personality, are less anxious or tend to repress emotions, the onset of PTSD is less likely to occur. It is the child who is overly anxious, and more vocal of a personality, who may be at greater risk for developing PTSD and this is often associated with their inquisitive nature.

Treating PTSD in your child will be very similar to the type of PTSD treatment given to adults with this same mental health complication. While medications may be necessary, your child will often benefit most from cognitive therapy that improves outlooks on like and assists your child in overcoming fears and levels of anxiety. For children with cancer who may be experiencing recurring battles of cancer, PTSD treatment will be more complex and require medication application in most cases.

Treating the mental health needs of a child with cancer is just as important as treating the physical health needs. In the child who is experiencing complications associated with anxiety, this may be indicative of PTSD complication for which mental health services are necessary. When considering your options, be sure to speak with your pediatric oncologist about the implications of PTSD and seek out mental health services even when you are not readily experiencing symptoms of this condition. In the long term, it will help your child manage many health issues more calmly and overcome anxiety more effectively.

Sources: Psycho-Oncology 18: 992-1000, pp. 996-999.

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