Post Traumatic Stress Hits Kids of Cancer Patients

Michael Kahn
Yahoo News

BARCELONA (Reuters) - Children whose parents have cancer often suffer post-traumatic stress symptoms that adults underestimate, Dutch researchers said on Wednesday.

The study, which the researchers said was the first to track post traumatic stress symptoms in adolescents over an extended period of time, found many children of cancer patients suffered telltale signs of the disorder.

These symptoms included recurring nightmares, an inability to stop thinking about the disease as well as conscious efforts to avoid hearing or knowing anything about their parent's condition, they told the European Cancer Conference.

"We thought the symptoms would decline after time but even after one to five years after the diagnosis, the children still had symptoms," said Gea Huizinga, a health scientist at the University Medical Centre in Groningen, who led the study.

Experts say post traumatic stress disorder symptoms include irritability or outbursts of anger, sleep difficulties, trouble concentrating, extreme vigilance and an exaggerated startle response. A person may initially respond to the trauma with horror or helplessness, then may persistently relive the event.

The recently completed study did not actually test whether children had the disorder but rather looked for symptoms of PTSD in 49 youths aged 11 to 18 years old starting during the first year after a parent's cancer diagnosis.

After first learning a parent had cancer, 29 percent of the children showed post traumatic stress symptoms serious enough to justify psychological help, the researchers said.

This number dropped by the end of the first year as kids seemed to adjust to the fact a parent had cancer, especially if the parent's health improved, Huizinga said.

But surprisingly, as time wore on, another group of children started showing an increase of symptoms, perhaps due to the cancer returning or having the time to think more -- and fret -- about the disease, she added.

"We thought the symptoms would decline over time," Huizinga said.

The study also found that girls seemed to have the most problems, perhaps because these children may feel responsible for taking on more duties at home with a sick parent, Huizinga said.

The team also suggested that the effect on children whose parents have cancer was bigger than many serious, chronic diseases because dying from cancer was so possible.

"We think cancer may have more impact because a parent might die of the disease," Huizinga said. "With a lot of chronic diseases that is often not the case."