Monday 21 February 2011

The Psychology of Children with Cancer

This post is dedicated to my research work with children and adolescents with cancer at the Viva University Children's Cancer Centre, National University Hospital (NUH).

Viva University Children's Cancer Centre

According to Singapore's Health Promotion Board, an average of 120 Singaporean children and adolescents are diagnosed with cancer each year, with about half of all childhood cancers occurring in children age 5 and below. NUH treats a number of different types of childhood cancers with the most common being Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL). They also see children from all over Asia including Malaysia, Indonesia, Phillippines, Brunei, Vietnam, India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka as well as the United Arab Emirates.

So what business does psychology have with pediatric cancer?

Firstly, I want to clarify that psychology is not about mind-reading. That's a psychic's job! Neither is it only about crazy people. Unless by crazy people you mean us psychologists, who go mad trying to explain to people that we can't read their minds! For the uninformed, psychology is the study of the mind and behavior. Much like astronomers who 'read' the stars and predict when the next eclipse is going to happen, psychologists 'read' people and predict what they are likely to do in a particular situation.

A few of us are qualified, after vigorous clinical training, to see patients with mental health issues (they are called clinical psychologists or psychotherapists) but the rest of us are mostly researchers conducting human experiments (sounds worst than it is really). Don't worry we are governed by a very strict code of ethics, so you don't have to be afraid that we will hurt you in any way when you participate in one of our studies.

Which brings me back to our study with pediatric cancer patients. As we all know, cancer treatment (such as chemotherapy) is necessary to cure the illness but it also results in many physical, cognitive and social side effects in children and adolescents. Doctors and medicine can only do so much for the patients physically but what about the effects of treatment on their psychosocial well-being? That's where we step in. My supervisor and I want to know how cancer treatment is affecting the children's quality of life and how their coping strategies are helping/not helping them to overcome the challenges that they face.

So we got permission from various authorities (i.e. the university, the hospital & the ethics board), joined forces with the pediatric oncologists at NUH and handed out surveys to parents and children asking them a bunch of psychology-related questions. Our participants were real heroes who, despite being ill, were happy to help us. Most people don't give two hoots about research so we're glad for their kind and generous participation =)

Along the corridors of the clinic where I patrol regularly to invite people to participate in our study

So far, our results are optimistic. Although treatment is not a pleasant thing to go through, both the children and their parents are finding ways to cope with it and most are doing well. I really admire the parents especially for their tenacity, determination and strength to fight alongside their children for as long as it takes. When we see the children walk out of there cancer-free, we rejoice with them and their families.

So other than writing/correcting my thesis, which can sometimes be such a big pain in the behind, I do love what I do. And for those of you who are wondering what that is, well now you know.

Update: If you'll like to find out the results of my research, my complete thesis can be found on the NUS Scholar Bank (Part 1 and Part 2) =)

This post is part of my series on My Pediatric Cancer Research
Read on to learn more about childhood cancer and its impact.
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