by Zahava R. S. Rosenberg-Yunger, Hon.BSc, MA, PhD
Childhood cancers have an estimated overall survival rate of over 80%. Even so, the treatment of childhood cancers and its after effects can be emotionally and physically intensive for patients and their families. A diagnosis of childhood cancer can result in financial, emotional and physical strains on families. These strains can be a particular challenge for single parent families as they are usually the sole adult responsible for the strains of caring for their families.
Our qualitative study, based on interviews with 29 single parents caring for children with cancer, was published in Child: Care, Health and Development. The goal of our study was to explore how single parents of children with cancer describe their caregiving experiences and to understand their contextual life stressors. The motivation behind this study was to acquire an in-depth understanding of the issues facing single parents and to motivate future research to assist in better supporting single parent families faced with caring for a child with cancer. Our study is unique in that not only was it the study to report on both the caregiving demands and the life stressors faced by single parents whose children have cancer during and prior to their child’s diagnosis but it also was the first study to address the unique present and historical life challenges faced by single parents in the context of paediatric oncology.
Our study results describe single parents’ responsibilities for a number of caregiving tasks including emotional tasks, informational tasks and physical tasks. We realize that many of these caregiving tasks are not unique to single-parent families however, it is important to note that single parents often must manage these duties on their own, frequently without the financial or emotional support from a partner.
We discovered that single parents caring for children with cancer experience several cumulative stressors in addition to the strain of caring for a child with cancer. Specifically, we report on the contextual picture of parent’s lives including their living conditions, their physical and mental health and their family histories of disruption, trauma and disease. Our single parents’ overall physical and mental health was compromised as a result of their caregiving duties and many experienced health problems prior to, and during their child’s diagnosis.
We believe that the synergy of these cumulative stresses (i.e., negative life events have an enduring and multiplying impact over an individual’s life) over time coupled with the added strain of caregiving for a child with cancer may have long-term health and financial implications for single parents. We have a number of recommendations for moving forward. We need to develop hospital-based interventions which are targeted at assisting parents with caregiving tasks. We believe these interventions shouldn’t stop there. We also need to create services that support the emotional needs of the whole family through psycho-social care and taking into consideration the unique needs of single parents. Finally, we need to create policies that focus on relieving the chronic strains, for example, ensuring that parents have adequate, affordable housing.
Dr. Zahava Rosenberg-Yunger is an Adjunct Professor within the School of Health Services Management at Ryerson University. She received her PhD in Health Policy Management and Evaluation from the University of Toronto where she applied an ethics lens to describe and evaluate international resource allocation decisions pertaining to public drug reimbursement. Zahava has also taught at the University of Toronto in the Department of Human Biology, as well as at the School of Health Services Management at Ryerson University. She has published in a number of areas including bioethics and health policy. She is currently the Director of Health Policy and Research at the Ontario Pharmacists Association. Her current research interests include the role of pharmacists in patient care, equity in resources allocation, comparative health policy, and stakeholder engagement in health care decision making.