But a new study by the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health has found that parents of children with cancer may be significantly underreporting their stress level.
“This study suggests that parents of children with cancer or a brain tumor may be experiencing physical reactions to stress, even if they don’t say that they feel stressed,” says Dr. Whitney P. Witt, study leader and assistant professor of population health sciences at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health. “If we screen for parental stress using only parents’ perceptions, we’ll misclassify almost 20 percent of those who actually have high stress.”
The study of families in the local area found that for children with cancer or a brain tumor, their parental caregivers experienced much more stress than parents of healthy children.
“We found that caring for a child with cancer can have negative impacts on caregiver stress, and sleep quality and social stress may be contributing factors,’’ says Witt. “This has important implications for both clinicians and parents of children with cancer, so they may monitor and try to reduce levels of stress among parents in order to improve the quality of life of both parents and their children.”
Witt led a research team that interviewed 73 parents of children with cancer or a brain tumor and 133 parents of healthy children. The study included families with children with cancer or a brain tumor from a local pediatric hematology and oncology clinic and families with healthy children recruited from the community.
They found that:
- Parents of children with cancer or a brain tumor had greater symptoms of stress (such as heart palpitations, headaches, or nausea) than parents of healthy children. This finding was true for both parents whose child was being treated for cancer, and those whose child had already completed their treatment.
- Parents of children with cancer or a brain tumor who had poor sleep quality and greater social stress (such as negative social interactions) were more likely to have high levels of stress.
- A subset of parents – about 20 percent – reported high symptoms of stress but low levels of perceived stress. This difference was greater among parents of children with cancer compared with parents of healthy children.
Other members of the team include Elizabeth A. Pollock, Kristin Litzelman and Lauren E. Wisk, all graduate students of the Department of Population Health Sciences in the School of Medicine and Public Health.
The research was supported in part by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, UW Carbone Cancer Center Investigator Initiated Trial, the UW Care for Kids Foundation, the UW-Madison Graduate School, and the National Science Foundation. It is published online in the journal Academic Pediatrics on February 5, 2013.
University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health