How Common is Anxiety in Childhood Cancer Survivors?
Feelings of Nervousness, Fear, and Tension
When do you truly survive cancer? When the oncologist tells you the tests show no sign of cancer? When you feel physically better? Or maybe when you can dispose of all the cancer-fighting medication? When you get the news that you no longer have cancer, the feeling is indescribable. The sense of relief, overwhelming joy, a belief you can take on the world and accomplish anything. But what if those emotions aren’t there? Imagine that you are a young child; how do you express your feelings when you get this news? What if fear and not happiness is the intense reaction racing through their young minds?
What Are These Feelings?
The American Psychological Association defines anxiety as “an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts, and physical changes like increased blood pressure.” Individuals with anxiety can have disturbing thoughts that come on suddenly and often can interfere with daily life. Worry and stress are common during a severe illness. Many children are resilient and able to cope during and after treatment, but these intense feelings can persist for some.
Anxiety in Young Cancer Survivors
During the past 50 years, with advances in science and cancer research, the overall survival rate for children (ages 0 to 14 years) and adolescents (ages 15 to 19 years) has increased dramatically. According to a study by the National Cancer Institute, between 2010-2016, 84% of children and 85% of adolescents diagnosed with cancer survived at least five years after the initial cancer diagnosis. That is an estimated half a million survivors of childhood cancer. This is genuinely outstanding news worth celebrating, but what if your child does not share these same feelings of happiness?
Along with treatments such as radiation and chemotherapy that help with a cure, these therapies can also bring long-term adverse effects beyond physical disabilities. Children who survive cancer can have increased stress and anxiety levels after being free of the physical disease. Follow-up doctor’s visits can be a constant reminder that cancer may return, leading to endless worry. Add to this the COVID-19 pandemic, and children with lingering compromised immune systems who are still going through their formative years can be quietly going through severe emotional trauma.
During this post-cancer stage, there are also other types of challenges a child will face. Readjustment into family life and also reentering school and different social situations can bring about anxiety. A child may return to school years behind their friends. There may also be long-term attention and memory issues associated with the cancer treatment. A young child may hope to readjust into their former life, but the reality is that may not be an easy transition.
Signs of Anxiety in Pediatric Cancer Survivors
Organizations specializing in the effects of childhood cancer continue to research to determine the percentage of pediatric cancer survivors who suffer from post-treatment depression and anxiety; it is not an uncommon occurrence. Each child experiences anxiety in different ways. Often it is dependent on the age and maturity level of the child. Young children may find it difficult to express or identify their feelings. Older kids or teenagers may not want to talk about the issues they are facing.
As a parent, you are your child’s primary caregiver before, during, and after cancer treatment. You know your child better than anybody else, so it’s essential to reach out to a qualified mental health provider if you believe your child is suffering from an anxiety disorder after treatment. St. Jude’s provides excellent information for parents of cancer survivors dealing with anxiety.
Some of the signs and symptoms may include the following:
- Feeling worried or scared
- Trouble concentrating
- Problems sleeping
- Loss of appetite
Options for Treating Anxiety in Young Cancer Survivors
Just as there are options for treating cancer, there are numerous options for treating anxiety in young cancer survivors. The following are some of the methods that the National Institute of Mental Health suggests.
- Psychotherapy-Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or talk therapy
- Mind/Body Therapy-Therapies such as yoga or other physical exercise.
- Medication-Once diagnosed, a doctor can prescribe medications such as antidepressants or mood stabilizers
It is important to remember that your child’s care team is still there to help even after cancer treatment. They should be able to provide additional information for assisting your child with any physical or mental concerns.
Helping Families in a Time of Crisis
A pediatric cancer diagnosis is devastating news for families. It is a life-changing event that can have lasting effects for years. We are fortunate to live in a time when the majority of children with cancer will survive. Having a solid support system during and after treatment can help to ease the physical and emotional turmoil a child will face. At Here to Serve, our mission is to offer compassionate assistance so that families are together, and their energy can center around the child’s needs during their cancer fight.
By Chris Smith