Support groups reduce anxiety among siblings of young cancer patients

July 06, 2001

The brothers and sisters of children with cancer may benefit from support groups that help them cope with the anxiety created by their sibling's disease, according to a new study.

"When a child is diagnosed with cancer, siblings also experience distress," says study author, B.A. Houtzager of the Academic Medical Center at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands.

"For example, siblings must adapt to changing family roles and decreased attention from their parents, and they experience feelings like guilt, isolation and anger. They also lack control over the situation, which can lead to anxiety."

The study is published in the July issue of the journal Psycho-Oncology.

The study involved 24 children, age 7 to 18 , who took part in support groups at the Academic Medical Center. Each participant had a sibling who had been treated or was currently undergoing treatment for leukemia, lymphoma, a solid tumor or a brain tumor.

The five-session support group program was designed to enhance feelings of control, with the aim of decreasing anxiety among the participants. The sessions offered the children opportunities to exchange information, discuss emotions and changes in their lives, meet with a pediatric oncologist who could answer their questions and visit the medical center's oncology ward.

The researchers assessed anxiety levels before and after the children took part in the support group. Most of the children had higher than normal anxiety scores before the group began meeting, but the average anxiety scores dropped significantly after group participation.

Parents' evaluations also suggested that the children were less tense after participating in the support groups. Similarly, the group therapists observed that the children became less tense and more able to express their feelings as the group proceeded.

"This research demonstrates an important role of support groups in helping children who are faced with a brother's or sister's cancer," Dr. Houtzager says. "Support groups can give children an opportunity to share experiences and emotions, and can teach them control strategies. Increased control in turn seems to help reduce anxiety."
Psycho-Oncology is a bimonthly international journal devoted to the psychological, social and behavioral dimensions of cancer. Published by John Wiley, it is the official journal of the American, British and International Psycho-Oncology Societies. Contact Jimmie Holland, MD, Co-Editor, at 212-739-7051 for information.

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