Dr Alice Emond, an oncology psychologist at the Royal Alexandra Children’s Hospital, has been providing specialist therapy to young cancer patients and their families since 2018.
This service, funded by Rockinghorse Children’s Charity, supports children from ages 1-19 and their families, both during and after cancer treatment, helping them to adjust to initial diagnosis and providing support through treatment and beyond.
A cancer diagnosis is difficult to comprehend at any age, but for a younger person is can be particularly traumatic not to mention the impact on their family. Along with understanding what their diagnosis means, there is the added pressure of managing whatever treatment is suggested, dealing with potential side effects, and coping with the associated psychological impact on the whole family.
Children can experience a range of emotional difficulties such as low mood, anxiety, or anger, along with things like difficulty sleeping or managing challenging behaviour. And this is alongside all the physical challenges of coping with the medical procedures that come with cancer treatment – difficult for an adult to manage, let alone a child.
This is where Dr Emond comes in. She takes referrals from the team at the hospital and then arranges to meet the children and their families for an initial assessment. From this meeting, she develops a plan and a range of outcomes to help support the family through their journey: “Facing a cancer diagnosis at a young age can be very stressful so one part of my role is to help normalise the feelings they may be experiencing and help them develop their resilience and coping skills,” explains Dr Emond. “Many families need reassurance that it’s normal to experience a range of emotions and to recognise that the process impacts on the whole family.”
The support can last from diagnosis, through treatment and beyond, meaning that Dr Emond can offer help to manage all aspects of the process: “The main benefits of the treatment are an increased awareness of patients’ holistic needs, preventing psychological distress and reducing the impact of stress. For many children, there can be a lot of anxiety around medical procedures, so I work with them to understand those fears and help them develop their skills to feel better able to cope and less overwhelmed.
“And for parents we can work on giving information in age-appropriate ways, helping parents talk to their children and working out the best ways to hold a child during treatment to minimise the triggers their child might be experiencing.”
Along with the important individual sessions, the service also developed a programme of fun events for children and families to attend along with wellbeing screenings and care plans at the start and completion of treatment.
They have also carried out work with families in the first year after treatment to support them getting back into a normal routine and returning to school as this can also have its concerns. As Dr Emond explains: “Whilst coming through treatment is positive news it can also see people struggling to understand what’s happened to them and feel overwhelmed which can sometimes lead to challenging behaviours.
“We work together to manage these feelings and find strategies which lead to increased coping methods. I also help to advocate on behalf of my patients to make sure they can access additional services and support to help them in the future.”
So far, the service has proved a great help with 42 referrals made since last June and a total of 97 patients and family members directly benefitting from the service. Even during the COVID crisis, appointments were offered via video or telephone with a 97% attendance rate.
Over the next year, Dr Emond is aiming to develop the service further by:
- Introducing, with the help of the play team, of a routine medical procedure session for all children and young people undergoing cancer treatment.
- Developing psychological support pathways for parents and siblings.
- Developing the range of online tools available to help virtual support in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
For more information about this service and other support and projects funded by Rockinghorse, please visit their website at www.rockinghorse.org.uk