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Relationships and Interdisciplinary Collaboration: Integrating Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health in the Pediatric Oncology Setting

Published online: July 10, 2020

Jennifer L. Harman, Victoria W. Willard, and Niki Jurbergs, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Memphis, Tennessee

Infants and toddlers account for a disproportionate percentage of children diagnosed with cancer. These young children and their families benefit when infant and early childhood mental health is recognized as vital and integrated with medical treatment. Such interventions are beneficial for supporting families in coping when cancer is the only stressor, and they become even more essential when cancer is just one in a series of stressors impacting a family, as is often the case. The authors discuss three abridged stories of collaborative, interdisciplinary, family-centered services provided for young children with cancer and their families, elucidating the importance of supporting the whole family and the young child alike in the context of pediatric cancer treatment.

Approximately half of all new cases of pediatric cancer occur during the early childhood years, with the highest incidence in babies less than 12 months old (U.S. Cancer Statistics Working Group, 2017). In the context of lengthy treatment plans and multiple hospitalizations, these young children miss exposure to and experiences with many developmentally normative activities (Harman, Wise, & Willard, 2018). Yet, when professionals across disciplines come together to provide integrated, family-centered support services, the overall development and well-being of very young children undergoing cancer treatment is enhanced. There are no doubt many examples of the positive impact of this approach. The stories of Mia, Jesse, and Anthony, whose names were changed to maintain anonymity, are shared here to illustrate three unique cases in which infant and early childhood mental health (IECMH) principles were infused within the context of pediatric cancer treatment. Each child’s circumstance was very different and thus the approach to treatment they required varied quite significantly. However, together, their stories illustrate the range of concerns with which IECMH principles can assist, the importance of relationships when working on behalf of young children, and how an interdisciplinary team can support children and their families.

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