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Doernbecher Children's Hospital Study Looks at How a Child's Cancer Diagnosis Affects the Parents

   Portland, Ore.

Researchers evaluate marriages of parents whose children have cancer

Since Michael and Mary Holt's son, Chris, was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL) at Doernbecher Children's Hospital, their relationship has faced new challenges. The question Doernbecher researchers are trying to answer is how will this challenge impact their marriage.

"This has all been very frightening and overwhelming for us, but we've been fortunate enough to have support from our extended family. I can't imagine what other parents who don't have that support are doing to cope. You just have to take it one day at a time and above all, learn to accept help from others," said Mary.

"When families go through the experience of a child having cancer, it is as if their lives are put under a magnifying glass, and whatever problems were there before are amplified. If the marriage was shaky prior to the diagnosis, then it may lead to divorce," said H. Stacy Nicholson, M.D., M.P.H., co-principal investigator of the study.

There have been major improvements in the treatment of pediatric cancers over the years, yet little is known about how the diagnosis and extended treatment affect the families involved. The Holts are one of eight families involved in a study at Doernbecher looking at the impact of a child's cancer diagnosis and extended treatment on his or her parents' marriage.

"The study's objective is to determine if a couple is at high risk for a failing marriage by identifying the key factors in their relationship," said Robert W. Butler, Ph.D., principal investigator of the study.

The study will analyze the psychosocial impact of the diagnosis and treatment on the parents. As principal investigator of the study, Butler hopes to initially enroll about 20 couples whose children have just been diagnosed with cancers. The parents will be followed over a two-year period and meet with Butler or an assistant for a review every six months. The pediatric patients will also be interviewed as part of a sub-study to evaluate how the parents' relationship affects them throughout treatment.

"As physicians, we are limited as to what we can do, so it is frustrating to see families break apart and not be able to help. It can have a considerable effect on the treatment and recovery of the child," said Nicholson. OHSU researchers hope the results will lead to further studies that can provide helpful tools for parents to better cope with the situation.

After undergoing a bone marrow transplant from his brother, Chris is recovering successfully. His parents are not only grateful for his recovery but are also hoping their experiences will help other families in the future.

The study is partially funded by pediatric Division of Hematology/Oncology in the OHSU School of Medicine.


Robert Butler, Ph.D., clinical psychologist at Doernbecher; associate professor of pediatrics (hemotology/oncology), OHSU School of Medicine; and principal investigator.

H. Stacy Nicholson, M.D., M.P.H., professor of pediatrics, OHSU School of Medicine; pediatric neuro-oncologist at Doernbecher; and co-principal investigator.

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