Staff at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn., started a simple, powerful innovation to help parents of children with cancer. “St. Jude is phenomenal in the research it does—not just medical there is also a lot of focus on the psychological side of cancer, “ said clinical social worker Paula McCarthy in a phone interview. She facilitates sessions of therapeutic scrapbooking for caregivers of children who are getting treatment at St. Jude.
A study about therapeutic scrapbooking was published in the Journal of Psychosocial Oncology. Researchers found the activity helped caregivers cope.
“Even though the craft of scrapbooking is widespread, its use as a tool for mental health professionals is just developing. I hope our experience at St. Jude encourages others to try it in diverse settings with a variety of different groups, both young and old,” lead author McCarthy said in a press release.
One of the reasons it works is that it provides the benefits of a support group without the stigma, according to McCarthy. She said people are sometimes reluctant to come to a support group because it means something is “wrong.” Going to a scrapbooking session is seen as a way to relax. “A lot of parents mentioned that is has been months since they have done something for themselves. A lot of parents do a lot of patient care,” at St. Jude, which is good for the child, but demands a lot from the parent, she said.
To be with other adults who can understand the experience is valuable. Being with fellow caregivers provides a chance for a person to express his or her feelings. “The most beautiful thing about this is, it normalizes the situation,” said McCarthy. “Some people do a lot of journaling, really elaborate about their feelings, we have a lot of pictures; it just kind of comes out.”
I think the biggest thing is to turn to the parents sitting next to you.”
We’ve got a lot of helping professionals but there is nothing like a peer who is going through it with you.”
Melissa Hamm has taken care of her son, Case, through three diagnoses and courses of treatment at St. Jude. “I have very good friends who try very hard to understand. “They are quick to say, ‘I can’t imagine her fears or where she gets the strength,’” she said in a phone interview.
Other parents in the same situation can understand as no one else can, said Hamm. “The moms here, it’s almost like we have another language, we’re drawn together.”
The first time Case was diagnosed at age 14, she was in shock, and did not take part in the scrapbooking sessions. When she did go during his second illness, she found a haven. “One thing that I can say about the scrapbooking, just because I am an old timer—I don’t necessarily go for the scrapbooking—is you can cry here.
“We don’t cry in front of our children. It’s ok to cry here.”
Now she takes her scrapbook to share with others. “At times its reassuring to share with them, this is what you can do. I have visible proof I can share” that it is possible to come through the experience. She documented her child’s favorite nurses and milestones of his treatment. Her son took to saving little mementos, like napkins, for her scrapbook.
Case Hamm graduated from high school with a 4.3 GPA, after going though “85 percent of his high school at St. Jude,” said Hamm.
The patients do better if their parents or other caregivers do better, according to McCarthy. “There is directly a reaction to how kids will do with the adjustment of the parent. We do know if parents are feeling a little more relaxed … there is that nonverbal communication,” which helps the child to handle things better. The hospital puts a lot of effort into psychological support, from therapy pet visits to the scrapbooking sessions.