The last 30 years have seen significant advances in the treatment of childhood cancer with a substantial increase in the five-year survival rate. However, because of the life-threatening nature of the illness, the intensity and unpredictability of treatments and its visible effects, paediatric cancer still significantly elevates the level of distress in patients, parents and siblings. Research, however, has mainly focused on the experiences of children with cancer and their parents, with few studies focused on the siblings. Throughout treatment and recovery, however, the whole family must face many challenges. Throughout this process parental resources can become overstretched and parents often report that they feel that the needs of the siblings may become overlooked during treatment.
A recent project by Dr Chiara Besani, Senior Clinical Psychologist, Haematology and Oncology Service, Children’s Health Ireland at Crumlin, has put siblings of children with cancer at the centre of a family based therapeutic intervention. This project involves an intervention which offers siblings information about cancer, to help them to become more familiar with the hospital environment. It also offers an opportunity for siblings to express and share their feelings, helping them to process and normalise their experience of having a brother or sister with cancer.
Commenting on the interventions used, Dr Besani said ‘the intervention was a 1-day group workshop with siblings and parents. During the day participants completed different activities to help them to express their questions, worries, fears and emotions about medical and psychological aspects of their brother/sister cancer diagnosis. Siblings and parents shared this with their own group and this was helpful because they could see that they were not alone, and other people were experiencing the same emotions too. During the day siblings and parents also participated in activities that helped them to learn different ways/skills to find solutions for difficult problems and situations. All families who participated in these workshops felt at the end stronger as a family and told us their communication had improved’.