Parent and child experiences of childhood cancer : an interpretative phenomenological analysis approach

Griffiths, Maya Richelle (2009) Parent and child experiences of childhood cancer : an interpretative phenomenological analysis approach. PhD thesis, Queensland University of Technology.


A diagnosis of cancer represents a significant crisis for the child and their family. As the treatment for childhood cancer has improved dramatically over the past three decades, most children diagnosed with cancer today survive this illness. However, it is still an illness which severely disrupts the lifestyle and typical functioning of the family unit. Most treatments for cancer involve lengthy hospital stays, the endurance of painful procedures and harsh side effects. Research has confirmed that to manage and adapt to such a crisis, families must undertake measures which assist their adjustment. Variables such as level of family support, quality of parents’ marital relationship, coping of other family members, lack of other concurrent stresses and open communication within the family have been identified as influences on how well families adjust to a diagnosis of childhood cancer. Theoretical frameworks such as the Resiliency Model of Family Adjustment and Adaptation (McCubbin and McCubbin, 1993, 1996) and the Stress and Coping Model by Lazarus and Folkman (1984) have been used to explain how families and individuals adapt to crises or adverse circumstances. Developmental theories have also been posed to account for how children come to understand and learn about the concept of illness. However more descriptive information about how families and children in particular, experience and manage a diagnosis of cancer is still needed. There are still many unanswered questions surrounding how a child adapts to, understands and makes meaning from having a life-threatening illness. As a result, developing an understanding of the impact that such a serious illness has on the child and their family is crucial. A new approach to examining childhood illness such as cancer is currently underway which allows for a greater understanding of the experience of childhood cancer to be achieved. This new approach invites a phenomenological method to investigate the perspectives of those affected by childhood cancer. In the current study 9 families in which there was a diagnosis of childhood cancer were interviewed twice over a 12 month period. Using the qualitative methodology of Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA) a semi-structured interview was used to explicate the experience of childhood cancer from both the parent and child’s perspectives. A number of quantitative measures were also administered to gather specific information on the demographics of the sample population. The results of this study revealed a number of pertinent areas which need to be considered when treating such families. More importantly experiences were explicated which revealed vital phenomena that needs to be added to extend current theoretical frameworks. Parents identified the time of the diagnosis as the hardest part of their entire experience. Parents experienced an internal struggle when they were forced to come to the realization that they were not able to help their child get well. Families demonstrated an enormous ability to develop a new lifestyle which accommodated the needs of the sick child, as the sick child became the focus of their lives. Regarding the children, many of them accepted their diagnosis without complaint or question, and they were able to recognise and appreciate the support they received. Physical pain was definitely a component of the children’s experience however the emotional strain of loss of peer contact seemed just as severe. Changes over time were also noted as both parental and child experiences were often pertinent to the stage of treatment the child had reached. The approach used in this study allowed for rich and intimate detail about a sensitive issue to be revealed. Such an approach also allowed for the experience of childhood cancer on parents and the children to be more fully realised. Only now can a comprehensive and sensitive medical and psychosocial approach to the child and family be developed. For example, families may benefit from extra support at the time of diagnosis as this was identified as one of the most difficult periods. Parents may also require counselling support in coming to terms with their lack of ability to help their child heal. Given the ease at which children accepted their diagnosis, we need to question whether children are more receptive to adversity. Yet the emotional struggle children battled as a result of their illness also needs to be addressed.

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ID Code: 29174
Item Type: QUT Thesis (PhD)
Supervisor: Schweitzer, Robert & Yates, Patricia
Keywords: children, cancer, parent and child experiences
Divisions: Current > QUT Faculties and Divisions > Faculty of Health
Current > Schools > School of Psychology & Counselling
Institution: Queensland University of Technology
Deposited On: 08 Dec 2009 02:38
Last Modified: 28 Oct 2011 19:54

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