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Ask most people what Child Life Therapy is and you’ll get a blank look – but to paediatric oncologist Dr Luciano Dalla-Pozza, it’s crucial to keeping kids with cancer hopeful and confident while they are having treatment.
“When we subject kids to the rigours of cancer treatment they can become scared or withdrawn, but a Child Life Therapist helps them cope with painful procedures so they are more likely to be co-operative. We want kids to feel as comfortable as possible and to feel confident about coming to receive treatment,” says Dr Dalla-Pozza, Director of the Cancer Centre for Children at The Children’s Hospital at Westmead.
Radiotherapy and MRI scans can be especially daunting for kids because they unfortunately have to undergo them by themselves.
“With an MRI scan they are in a clinical room with a space age machine that can be overwhelming. You can paint any number of cute whales and camels on the walls but it is still going to look scary to a child. Kids need confidence to deal with these situations and Child Life Therapists have ways to help them adjust by desensitising them to these stresses so they can cope and feel safer”.
“These skills at calming children and preparing them for these situations are extremely valuable. Without this approach many more children would require sedation and anaesthetics, a process which takes considerable time and resources and severely limits the number of scans or procedures that can be performed. If we need to sedate a child for radiotherapy or an MRI we need additional staff and more time – and in that time we could have treated two or three other children”.
Dr Luciano Dalla-Pozza treats kids diagnosed with leukaemia, brain cancer and solid tumours of organs and soft tissues – a job he has been doing since the 1970’s when the outlook for childhood cancer was bleak.
“But with better treatments, survival rates have grown steadily over the last 15 years, and of the roughly 1,000 children who’ll get a cancer diagnosis this year, 85% will be alive after five years” he says. “Australia sits close to the top in the western world with survival rates for childhood cancer and that’s a reflection of the services and funding”.
“But cancer treatment for children is not just about knocking cancer on the head, it is also about making sure they have the best quality of life during their treatment and that they go on to achieve their full potential”.
This is where Child Life Therapy makes a genuine and deep difference.
“Back in the 1970’s there was no pain relief offered for children undergoing painful procedures such as a lumbar puncture or bone marrow test. These days, there are much better, sensitive ways of helping children through these difficult tests” Dr Dalla-Pozza says.
“There is now a clear recognition that children are extraordinarily sensitive to stresses but they are highly receptive and responsive to the interventions offered by our exceptionally talented Child Life Therapists. There is a lot about caring for kids with cancer that we can continue to improve upon. If I had two more Child Life Therapists in our Centre we could reach further and deeper into providing sensitive cancer care tailored to individual patient needs.- we could extend services around the clock and over weekends and we could do research into how to assist families to cope”.
Camp Quality currently funds Child Life Therapists at Monash Children’s Hospital, John Hunter Children’s Hospital, The Children’s Hospital at Westmead and Sydney Children’s Hospital Randwick. We are working hard to grow the funding for this service, to increase the number of hours on offer for kids and families to meet the growing demand.