Researcher pursues new coping resource for children of cancer patients

Nicole Stiles

A UT postdoctoral research fellow is creating an app to address a lack of resources for U.S. adolescents who have a parent diagnosed with cancer.

“Once the cancer reaches its last stages and is determined terminal, the children can be left with long-term psychosocial issues that are not properly tended to,” Farya Phillips, a postdoctoral research fellow in psychosocial oncology, said in an on-campus lecture Wednesday.

Phillips said almost 3 million children have a parent with cancer. She conducted a study in a community setting, interviewing 10 adolescents affected by an ill parent. Phillips said the study aims to find out how to give teenagers more applicable options than the support groups and other resources that hospitals and other organizations currently offer.

“In my work with the community, I found there was a scarcity of interventions [resources supported by evidence] to help us work with these families,” Phillips said. “The resources that were directed toward adolescents seemed especially underutilized.”

As a part of her developing research Phillips is raising funds to make a new social networking app in an attempt to create a social support group for teens with terminal parents on a medium they enjoy using.

“The app allows these youth to journal, using photos or words, about things that they are grateful for,” Phillips said. “This type of gratitude intervention has been shown to improve general well-being and mood.” 

Social work dean Luis Zayas said prompting potentially depressed adolescents to journal in a positive way could help their well-being.

“It has also been shown that even if they are prompted to journal and decide not to, just looking at positive posts from other people can improve their attitude toward their situation,” Zayas said. 

Phillips said many factors, especially within the structure of the family unit, could influence the reaction of a child to parental cancer.

“Family functionality has been shown to be a key factor in the level of distress that can be caused,” Phillips said. “Certain vulnerabilities that existed before the diagnosis of the illness can either heighten the stress or facilitate coping.”

According to Austin Hospice chaplain Pamela Brouker, adolescents often distance themselves from situations involving sickness and death.

“In hospice work, the adolescents are the hardest group to reach in the family,” Brouker said. “They’re often gone, they often disappear and they certainly don’t want to sit down and talk to a social worker.”