11:20am Wednesday 11 December 2019

Family experiences of childhood cancer

When a child receives a cancer diagnosis, the entire family experiences the illness. And although medical research has led to significant improvements in life expectancy for the child, the suffering of those families and ways to relieve some of it has received much less attention in the research arena.

Three new doctoral nursing scholarships in pediatric oncology, funded by the Alberta Children’s Hospital Foundation and centered at the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Nursing, will support research exploring families’ turmoil with an aim to improving how health care professionals can be most effective in mitigating their suffering.

“Simply understanding experiences of those who have been affected by childhood cancer is not enough,” says Dr Nancy Moules, Faculty of Nursing professor, supervisor and leader of this new team of researchers who has developed her own strong program of research in pediatric oncology. “We hold an obligation to use this research-based understanding to significantly ease some of the distress of children and their families.”

Award recipients Catherine Laing, Angela Morck and Nicole Toner launched their nursing PhD studies at the University of Calgary this fall. Laing, who has worked in pediatric oncology for more than 12 years, is researching the effect of childhood cancer on the parental relationship. Morck is examining the impact of the death of a child on the pediatric oncology nurse while Toner explores the complexity of communication arising between nurses and families during the diagnosis, treatment and potential cure or death of a child with cancer.

“I’ve had the privilege of working with many families going through the unfathomable stress that pediatric cancer brings to relationships,” says Laing. “I believe nurses are perfectly positioned to address the complex interactions between couples and ultimately support them for their own well-being and the wellbeing of their child.”

Morck’s background in psychology and mental health makes her acutely sensitive to her research area. “By the very nature of the trajectories of childhood cancer, relationships form and are sustained over time,” she says. “I am very interested in how nurses navigate, live alongside and experience their own losses when a child they have cared for dies.”

For Toner, her passion to be involved in the relational aspects of pediatric oncology directed her to the examination of the difficult conversations that inevitably occur between families and their health care providers. “This scholarship presents a remarkable opportunity to investigate when and how these conversations occur and how they evolve. The end result should be that these conversations are potentially healing for everyone.”

Toner adds that part of the excitement of the research is the benefit of working with a dedicated group of researchers all focused on pediatric oncology. “It can only enhance my own learning as a new researcher as well as those of the other students and move toward improving best practices for all health care professionals.”

“Nursing research explores the very personal face of childhood cancer,” says Kathy Greenwood, Chief Development Officer, Alberta Children’s Hospital Foundation. “This new team of researchers working under the supervision of Dr Moules will contribute to a world-class program of research oriented toward child and family-centred cancer care.”

Dr Moules and the scholarship recipients are conducting their research as members of the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute for Child and Maternal Health. The three scholarships hold a value of $37,500 annually and are renewable each year up to four years.

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