Mental Wellbeing for Cancer Patients

The physical impact of childhood cancers is widely recognised, but looking after the mental health of patients and their families as they go through diagnosis, treatment and recovery is also vital.

While the survival rates of paediatric cancers have significantly increased over the last 10 years, the psychological impact and psychosocial stress placed on the patient and their family when first diagnosed and during their intensive medical treatment remains significant1.

A diagnosis of cancer can have a profound impact on a young child and their family’s ability to psychologically process, manage and cope with the changes to their lives including dealing with painful medical procedures, being socially isolated from their friends and loved ones and adjusting back to ‘normal’ life following treatment1.

There are key times when support can be vital, no matter what point a patient and family are in their treatment and care. Typically, patients may be referred to address complex psycho-emotional needs including persistent and intense distress that interferes with the patient’s quality of life or their ability to access medical care.  

Dr Kate Holt is a Senior Clinical and Health Psychologist at the Monash Children’s Hospital Cancer Centre who has extensive experience promoting the wellbeing of young people who are being treated for cancer and their families.

“Paediatric oncology and haematology patients and their families may be referred to the clinical psychologist whilst they are ‘on-treatment’ but often they are also referred when they have finished treatment and are adjusting back to ‘normal’ life,” said Dr Holt.

"Coming off treatment can be different for everyone and, just like at diagnosis, it not only impacts the patient but the whole family."

"Patients and family members may need to adapt to a new ‘normal’ and this can be challenging because the patient’s diagnosis and the treatment journey has changed them and family members."

Since 2008, the Children's Cancer Foundation has provided more than $428,000 for the Psychology service at the Monash Children’s Hospital. This funding also allows for support, consultation and psychoeducation to members of the Children’s Cancer Centre team.  

Research over time has clearly identified the emotional toll or burden of care that health oncology professionals face in this work2. The role of the clinical psychologist includes building capacity for peer support within the treatment team.

Dr Holt is also involved in ongoing research to add to the understanding of the psychosocial impact of cancer on patients and families and the evaluation and improvement of targeted interventions.

1Kupst, M. J., & Bingen, K. (2006). Stress and coping in the pediatric cancer experience. In R. T. Brown (ed.), Comprehensive Handbook of Childhood Cancer and Sickle Cell Disease: A Biopsychosocial Approach (pp.35 -52). New York, USA: Oxford University Press.

2Mukherjee, S., Beresford, B., Glaser, A. & Sloper, P. (2009) Burnout, psychiatric morbidity, and work-related sources of stress in paediatric oncology staff: A review of the literature. Psycho-Oncology, 18, 1019-1028.