As kids increasingly survive cancer, they and their families need emotional help

As children increasingly survive cancer, they and their families often need help adjusting emotionally during and after their ordeal.

It used to be that pediatric cancer was almost always fatal. Fortunately, now almost 85% of kids survive to have a full and rewarding future.

Those children and their families often need help adjusting emotionally during and after their ordeal.

“With cancer and blood disorders, there can be a lot of additional stress, and even families that have really good coping at baseline may struggle going through this process,” said Sunnye Mayes, Ph.D., ABPP.

At Norton Children’s Cancer Institute, affiliated with the UofL School of Medicine, Dr. Mayes is director of psychosocial services for pediatric hematology/oncology, overseeing the Hematology/Oncology Physical, Emotional and Social (HOPES) Program.

Dr. Mayes has received specialized training in psychological services for children and adolescents with pediatric cancer and blood disorders and is the only provider in Kentucky or Southern Indiana board certified by the American Board of Professional Psychology in clinical child and adolescent psychology.

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Cancer is scary enough for a kid. Add to that treatments that can include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation treatment, stem cell transplants and CAR T-cell therapy, and it becomes a lot for a child and family to handle.

“We’re there for the family. We work with the patient, the parents and sometimes the siblings. The whole family is in this situation together, each family member with different perspectives, and it’s our job to work with them and help them get through the process successfully,” Dr. Mayes said.

Dr. Mayes is also the director of research for the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Psychology and serves as an associate professor in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Louisville School of Medicine.

The HOPES Program takes care of pediatric hematology/oncology patients physically, emotionally and socially. The services include child life therapy, art therapy, music therapy and psychosocial services.

Dr. Mayes is participating in a state-funded project initiated  to implement the Psychosocial Standards of Care for Pediatric Oncology within Norton Children’s Cancer Institute. Implementation of the standards will provide enhanced services for families of children and adolescents receiving treatment for cancer, both during and beyond their treatment.

“We’re intervening early with issues to help prevent them from continuing to expand as a child gets older,” she said.

Dr. Mayes comes to Norton Children’s Cancer Institute from the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center in Oklahoma City, where she was an associate professor of pediatrics.

Originally from Bartlesville, Oklahoma, a town just south of the Kansas border, Dr. Mayes went to college at the University of Oklahoma, Norman, and received graduate training in clinical child psychology at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. She did her clinical internship at the Munroe-Meyer Institute at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, (a site of the Nebraska Internship Consortium in Professional Psychology) and completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center.

Using evidence-based therapies brings out kids’ resilience

According to Dr. Mayes, it’s important to work with families in an evidence-based manner, whether it’s specific interventions for sleep or pain, or other issues faced by a child their family.

“I really like the process of taking the relevant research and applying that to the child’s needs, the family’s needs,” she said. “One of the things I like about my job is how resilient children are, and helping to bring out that resilience.”

Dr. Mayes works closely with parents to determine how well children are coping.

“If they see their child doing something they don’t normally do, or if they show a lack of interest in things they normally enjoy, that might be a sign they’re not doing well,” Dr. Mayes said. “Sometimes, it’s tricky to figure out. What looks like depression may just be a sick kid. I’m here to help families figure that out and to help them feel more supported in that process.”

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