Life interrupted: the adolescent's experience when a parent has advanced cancer

Date

2013-08

Authors

Phillips, Farya

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Abstract

It is estimated that close to 55, 000 children may experience the death of a parent from cancer each year in the United States. Families with children facing the death of a parent from cancer are a potentially vulnerable population often overlooked by health care professionals (HCP), and understudied by researchers. Little is currently know about how having a parent with advanced cancer affects children and adolescents. These youth experience many losses when a parent is diagnosed with advanced cancer, the loss of a healthy parent, the loss of both parent’s emotional and physical availability, and the loss of normalcy in their family lives. Research suggests that adolescents have been the most negatively affected group when faced with a parent’s illness. This dissertation will provide a comprehensive examination of the effects of advanced parental cancer on adolescents. A theoretical model will be presented as a guiding framework. This model is based on a prior systematic review of literature involving factors influencing children and adolescent’s adjustment to parental cancer. The first article is a systematic review of the current state of empirical literature on the impact of a parent’s advanced cancer on children and adolescents. Article 2 offers an inductive content analysis of 7 in depth qualitative interviews with adolescent’s living with a parent diagnosed with advanced cancer. The core construct that organized study results was weaving cancer into our lives. Our findings shed light on how families managed when the “terminal phase” of cancer stretched on for many years. Implications for HCP’s include the need to facilitate family interventions that provide parents and adolescents with a venue to communicate and process the impact of cancer on their lives. Article three utilized a hermeneutic phenomenological approach to discover the lived experience of adolescent’s facing advanced parental cancer. Four essential themes emerged from the analysis: Life interrupted, Being there, Managing emotions, Positives prevail. The findings in this study underscore the significant impact an advanced cancer diagnosis can make on a family system and suggest that the experience may also have the potential of creating opportunities for growth and well being. These findings indicate that some adolescents are able to find meaning in these difficult circumstances which helps shape their growing identity. The themes of positive growth and gratitude that emerged from this dissertation suggest that this is a potentially powerful protective factor that adolescents use to maintain positive adjustment during a parent’s protracted illness. Researchers and HCP’s can build on these findings to closely examine the potential for gratitude as a construct in intervention programs for families facing parental cancer.

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