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The Psychology Of Being A Kid With Cancer

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Cobler family
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Jude Cobler is a North Texas boy who was diagnosed with leukemia.

Cancer can take a toll on a kid’s physical health, but there are psychological effects, too. Many survivors experience anxiety, while some suffer from post-traumatic stress.

Dr. Shannon Poppito is a psycho-oncologist who works with patients who’ve recovered from cancer at Baylor’s Sammons Cancer Center. Poppito says children often experience cancer differently than adults and teens.

Poppito talked with KERA’s Lauren Silverman about children and cancer. The interview is part of Growing Up After Cancer, a KERA Breakthroughs series that follows the journey of a North Texas boy, Jude Cobler, after his leukemia diagnosis.

Explore KERA's digital project here -- there are stories and radio pieces, as well as videos and photos of Jude and his family. And there are preview videos of Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies, a documentary that will air on KERA-TV starting March 30. 

Interview Highlights: Dr. Poppito …

… on kids being hypervigilant 

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Credit Baylor Scott & White
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Dr. Shannon Poppito is a psycho-oncologist at Baylor’s Sammons Cancer Center.

  “Four- and 5-year-olds are not going to take up cancer the same way as a 7, 8, 9 10-year-old,” Poppito said. “Because the developmental shifts that are occurring in their bodies, in their brains, are shifting. These little kiddos, they’re just exploring the world for the first time. They’ll understand cancer as not feeling very well and not being happy that they can’t go out to play. … But they look to their parents – if they’re angry, if they’re sad, if they’re nervous. They take on whatever the parents are experiencing of their cancer.”

“There is something about having cancer that is ever present in your mind, that once you’ve overcome the cancer, you want to make sure you are doing everything in your power,” Poppito said. “So there’s this hypervigilance, this control to make sure that you’re doing everything to take care of yourself. Parents should just be aware of if the fears of contamination start affecting a child’s functioning. Preemptively, perhaps, have a child go see a psychologist … because, as a psycho-oncologist, I see patients that struggled with cancer at 5 years old that will come to me in their 20s having not worked through these fears of contamination and now it has become debilitating, and now they struggle with obsessive-compulsive disorder or they struggle with issues that were left unattended.” 

… on teenagers and cancer

“Teenagers will experience cancer, maybe some similarities to an 8 or 10-year-old, but different in the fact that stress will trigger a stress hormone called cortisol,” Poppito says. “Cortisol then, working together with estrogen, which females are having course through their bodies as a teenager, will spike this traumatic stress even more. On top of that, we have identity issues. So she’s trying to find her own sense of identity in the world. All of these bio-psycho-social underpinnings will impact how cancer develops this post-traumatic stress in the body, the mind and the spirit of a teenager.”

… on kids and resiliency

“What I want to underscore is not only the post-traumatic stress, but also the post-traumatic growth that occurs in patients who have cancer, especially in teen years. They’ve learned a sense of resiliency, a sense of overcoming, their sense of identity becomes stronger. … I don’t think we have enough literature out there on post-traumatic growth -- that you can learn something from the cancer you can learn how to make it meaningful and purposeful.” 

Explore Growing Up After Cancer, the KERA Breakthroughs series, here.

Lauren Silverman was the Health, Science & Technology reporter/blogger at KERA News. She was also the primary backup host for KERA’s Think and the statewide newsmagazine  Texas Standard. In 2016, Lauren was recognized as Texas Health Journalist of the Year by the Texas Medical Association. She was part of the Peabody Award-winning team that covered Ebola for NPR in 2014. She also hosted "Surviving Ebola," a special that won Best Long Documentary honors from the Public Radio News Directors Inc. (PRNDI). And she's won a number of regional awards, including an honorable mention for Edward R. Murrow award (for her project “The Broken Hip”), as well as the Texas Veterans Commission’s Excellence in Media Awards in the radio category.