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Research reveals therapeutic value of digital storytelling

University of Calgary findings emphasize mental health of young cancer patients and survivors

CALGARY, AB--(Marketwired - September 22, 2016) - University of Calgary nursing researcher Catherine Laing has found that providing pediatric cancer patients and survivors with digital storytelling techniques to share their experiences can have therapeutic value for the patients and their health care providers.

"Right now, our long-term follow-up focuses primarily on the physical issues related to pediatric cancer treatments with much less attention given to mental and emotional health," says Laing, an assistant nursing professor and former pediatric oncology nurse. "This research shows that we need to find creative ways to address mental health with this population because, while most of them spoke of mental health issues - fear, depression, anxiety, learning difficulties - they all indicated that they were keeping it to themselves and that they'd never see a psychiatrist."

Funded by the Kids Cancer Care Chair in Pediatric Oncology Research Fund, an endowed fund at the Alberta Children's Hospital Foundation, 16 cancer patients or survivors, between the ages of five and 32, participated in the study. Over the course of three one-on-one sessions, each participant met with a digital storytelling facilitator who helped them explore their emotional archives to find their story and then select the words and images to represent it, using photography, art, video, music or poetry. The facilitator then provided guidance for the participants to compose, record and edit their digital story.

Laing's research revealed that it wasn't the cancer itself that survivors were struggling with. It was the emotional fallout of their cancer that was at issue - be it damaged relationships, shattered body images or impaired physical or cognitive function. Producing the digital story helped survivors to make sense of a deeper part of their cancer journey and come to terms with it. Although childhood cancer is a uniquely different experience for each person, the research suggests that what survivors do share in common is a need to make sense of a life-changing experience at some point in their lives.

"Looking back on my life, before starting my digital story, to life now, it's like an awakening," said Anika Haroon, a 26-year-old cancer survivor, university student and study participant, who produced a digital story called Exile and Healing. "I was catatonic. I was struggling just to get out of bed in the morning. Now I'm doing something new every week. Many of these involve doing things I am afraid of. I've wanted to do so much in my life since my cancer experience and I'm at a point in my life where I can do it. Something as little as a video can totally change a person's life - I am living proof of that."

All 16 participants reported the experience as having therapeutic value for them. After producing their digital story, each participant met with Laing for a one-to-one interview, where they explored their experience of producing the digital story.

With approval from participants, Laing also shared a selection of digital stories with 11 health care providers, who were later interviewed about their experience of viewing the digital stories.

These health care professionals reported that viewing the digital stories of patients and survivors helped deepen their understanding of the childhood cancer experience. Laing's research findings could have major implications for long-term follow-up of pediatric cancer survivors, calling for a stronger focus on mental health.

"We're excited to hear the results of Dr. Laing's research into digital storytelling and we're proud to support such important work through the Kids Cancer Care Chair in Pediatric Oncology Research Fund," says Kids Cancer Care founder and CEO Christine McIver. "Although advances in medical research have greatly improved survival rates for many pediatric cancers, the children's cancer community is only just beginning to understand the long-term fallout of giving cancer treatments to children. We're starting to see that the psycho-social effects are huge, so we need more research like this to help us understand the less visible side of childhood cancer to help children and families deal with the full extent of this disease."

A media availability has been scheduled for today (Thursday, September 22) at 11 a.m.

WHAT: Research findings on the therapeutic value of digital storytelling for young cancer patients and medical professionals

WHEN: Thursday, September 22, 2016, 11:00 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

WHERE: Faculty of Nursing, University of Calgary, Second floor, Professional Faculties Building Room 222* (Note: new room location from the advisory) 2500 University Drive N.W.
(Public parking available in Lot 1 see campus and parking maps)

WHO: Catherine Laing, assistant nursing professor, University of Calgary

Anika Haroon, two-time cancer survivor and digital storytelling research participant

Christine McIver, founder and CEO, Kids Cancer Care Foundation of Alberta.

About the University of Calgary
The University of Calgary is making tremendous progress on its journey to become one of Canada's top five research universities, where research and innovative teaching go hand in hand, and where we fully engage the communities we both serve and lead. This strategy is called Eyes High, inspired by the university's Gaelic motto, which translates as 'I will lift up my eyes.'

For more information, visit ucalgary.ca. Stay up to date with University of Calgary news headlines on Twitter @UCalgary. For details on faculties and how to reach experts go to our media centre at ucalgary.ca/news/media.

About the Kids Cancer Care Foundation of Alberta
Kids Cancer Care strives to ease the pain and suffering of young people affected by cancer, whether that means rekindling lost childhoods at Camp Kindle and through year-round outreach programs; or restoring confidence and hope for the future through educational support and scholarship programs; or permanently eliminating the disease through new research and better treatments at the hospital. kidscancercare.ab.ca.

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