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Children under treatment for cancer are generally emotionally well-adjusted and no more depressed or anxious than other children their age, according to St. Jude researchers. In studies of depression, anxiety, posttraumatic stress and quality of life, children with cancer do as well as—and often better than—their healthy peers.
“We see them as a flourishing population that has adapted to the stress of having cancer and undergoing treatment,” said Sean Phipps, PhD, Behavioral Medicine. “They become quite resilient to the long-and short-term emotional and physical effects of their disease and the treatments.”
The unexpected finding that children with cancer are emotionally resilient is important because of the dramatic improvement in survival rates of pediatric cancers. “There has been a shift in research toward the concerns of long-term survivors of pediatric cancers,” Phipps said. “The ability of these children to cope with the after-effects of cancer is the major issue now. What we are learning from this population might help us learn how to improve the quality of life of children who are not doing so well.”
Phipps is the author of an article on adaptive styles in children with cancer that appears in the advanced online issue of the Journal of Pediatric Psychology. The article, based on research done by his group and other research teams around the country, was presented at the conference “Psychosocial and Neurocognitive Consequences of Childhood Cancer: A Symposium in Tribute to Raymond K. Mulhern,” held at St. Jude in September 2006, in honor of the late Raymond K. Mulhern, PhD, a pioneer in psychological research in pediatric oncology at St. Jude. The symposium’s presentations will also appear in a special December issue of the journal.
One possible clue to the successful adaptation to cancer and its treatment might be the good care, nurturing and love these children receive, Phipps noted. In addition, they are not confronted with tests in school, bullies or other common stresses their peers face.
A team led by Phipps examined self-reported somatic symptoms of 120 children with cancer who had finished medical treatment at least six months previously. Somatic symptoms are physical problems such as loss of weight, trouble sleeping and loss of energy. The researchers found no differences between children with cancer and healthy controls in self-reported somatic symptoms. In fact, cancer patients reported slightly lower symptom levels.
Phipps and his colleagues are also studying several other factors from the growing field of “positive psychology,” such as optimism, benefit-finding, posttraumatic growth and the concept that people facing adversity might actually benefit and become stronger from it in many ways.