More Parents Being Diagnosed With PTSD When Their Kids Face Cancer
LAUREN GILGER: When you think of post-traumatic stress disorder, war veterans might first come to mind. But there is growing recognition that it is something also suffered by parents whose children suffer from life-threatening illnesses. Our next guest helps those parents as they face something every parent dreads to hear — that their child has been diagnosed with cancer. Jennifer Hamblin is a mental health therapist at Phoenix Children's Hospital. She sees patients as young as one, but works with the entire family. And her position has proven to be an important part of the family's care team there. It was originally funded by the Children's Cancer Network as a part-time job. But she was so busy, it became full-time, and she says since she began her work there, Phoenix Children's Hospital has seen the response and added eight more mental health therapists to work in areas from cardiology to the ER. I sat down with Hamblin recently to talk more about her work and she told me, though every parent is different and every family is different, they're all dealing with grief.
JENNIFER HAMBLIN: A lot of times we think of grief in terms of death, but really grief is about loss. And when you're a child or when anybody is diagnosed with cancer, you go through a process of loss. There's a loss of independence, there's a loss of freedom and a lot of times, families have to give up jobs in order to be a care provider, a loss of friends, believe it or not, and support systems change. There are so many different losses. And you know, as a parent, our jobs are to protect. So that's really a hard thing to do when your child is sick. You know, our instinct is always to protect and to heal and to make things better. And so when that feels like it's taken away, that's really hard. And that adds to that grief and that anxiety, because you no longer feel like you have any control, and that adds and compounds everything, because you can't stop them from accessing their port for the medication that they need because they need it. And how do you explain that to a 2- or 3-year-old or a 4-year-old when they have to be held down for port accessing or medications and things like that.
GILGER: Do parents that you're dealing with often feel like they've failed on some level because they didn't protect their kids from this?
HAMBLIN: I think that that is always a question that parents ask themselves. You know, so many times I've met with parents and they've said, well, you know, “We've done everything, like all through my pregnancy I ate everything organic” or like “I've never smoked,” or, you know, I think everybody always looks for the question, and that's part of the grief process, too, and that questioning phase of grief, it's like, “Why me? Why us? Why my son or my daughter?” And I think that that's absolutely a fair and legitimate question.
GILGER: I know it must be different for every family, like you said, but particularly for families that maybe lose a child, do you work with parents as that is going on and afterward?
HAMBLIN: Yeah absolutely, absolutely. I do. And yeah, it's challenging and it's hard. We follow patients through diagnosis, and unfortunately through loss.
GILGER: So there seems to be sort of a growing awareness right now that the effects of this on parents, in particular, can be pretty widespread and can be long lasting, right? So you're seeing, now, parents suffering from PTSD, which is something you normally think about in soldiers, right, in veterans. Why is it that an experience like this can progress into PTSD for a parent?
HAMBLIN: I think to give an example, like a young parent, when you see like your child fall down like from the monkey bars and that panic initial response that you have, like when your knees go weak and your stomach is in your throat and you panic and you run to scoop them up. It's like being in that kind of state all the time when your child has cancer, it's that hyper arousal all the time and not being able to get out of it because they're constantly sick. It's like being stuck there and not knowing if they're going to be okay.
GILGER: So how do you help them deal with it, when you do find parents who you are able to diagnose in this way?
HAMBLIN: Support is key. Our research will show that, too, is that support is key in helping these children and their parents. So getting them into counseling, helping them process, increasing the communication within their family, making sure that they have good coping skills or increasing the coping skills that they do have, teaching new coping skills if they don't have them, encouraging things like mindfulness and exercise and proper nutrition.
GILGER: So when you talk about awareness and growing awareness of this right now, do you think that it hasn't been a part of the conversation as much in the past because parents have been left out of the conversation because it's about the kids, it's about the person who's suffering?
HAMBLIN: Yeah, absolutely, absolutely.
GILGER: And do you think it's good that that's changing?
HAMBLIN: Yeah absolutely, because I think, you know, any time a child or an adult for that matter in a family is diagnosed with cancer, it affects everyone in the family. It's not just the child. You know, it's not just a child receiving the chemo or losing the hair, it's like everyone in the family is affected. You know, a parent might have to give up a job and the other parent stays at the hospital and the sibling that's at home has to have somebody else taking them to and from school, and the attention is shifted and their carpool schedule is shifted, and there's all kinds of different emotions and feelings that come out from that. So it really does truly affect the whole family. So it does need to be a family approach.
GILGER: Do you have kids?
HAMBLIN: I do. I have two girls.
GILGER: How do you deal with this? How do you like personally hear these stories and work in this realm all day, and then not feel this in your own life?
HAMBLIN: It's really, really tricky, it's really hard. It's emotional. Sometimes it makes me a hypochondriac and makes me anxious for sure. And it makes me cherish things, and my girls’ health and my family's health, and it's definitely a gift that these families let me into their lives at such a challenging time and share their stories, and it's amazing. It's amazing work and I love it and I can't imagine myself doing anything else.
GILGER: Jennifer Hamblin, thank you so much.
HAMBLIN: Thank you.