Understanding new immigrant parents of children with cancer

By: Alisa Samuel

Published on July 25 2022

Photo: Arina Krasnikova (Pexels)

Childhood cancer treatment usually lasts many months and even years. It demands a lot of energy from both the patient and their family caregivers. Newcomer parents of children with cancer not only struggle against the stress of caring for their families but also the challenges of adapting to a new society.

In 2011, a professor in the department of paediatrics at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Dr. Anne F. Klassen, and her team published a research article in Psycho-Oncology. They interviewed 25 first generation South Asian and Chinese parents about their unique experiences as cancer caregivers in an unknown country. The parents said they didn’t know what services to contact, who to lean on for advice, or how to overcome the loneliness of navigating a foreign healthcare system. 

According to the findings, most newcomer parents are unfamiliar with Family-Centred Care. Family-Centred Care is “the model of healthcare delivery in Canada that emphasizes the sharing of information, supporting parents in decision-making, and respecting the choices made by families.” 

Canadian healthcare providers (HCPs) are expected to help parents make the best health decisions for their children, but language barriers make it hard for HCPs and immigrant family caregivers to work together. Sometimes the information or important questions that immigrant family caregivers need to ask aren’t available in their native language. Sometimes HCPs don’t speak to them in plain English. Sometimes they need post-appointment instructions patiently repeated to them. Interpreters are not always available in busy oncology clinics to assist with patient-doctor communication.

Cultural beliefs and ideas also complicate therapy. In the study, South Asian immigrant family caregivers said they wanted to keep their children from thinking negative thoughts. So, they didn’t tell their children how sick they were. Some Chinese immigrant family caregivers used food and herbal remedies on their children as a traditional practice—without discussing the use with their child’s oncologist. Taking medication that isn’t prescribed by your doctor can confuse the course of treatment and possibly harm your health.

Klassen’s research team wondered why the struggles and needs of immigrant family caregivers isn’t widely talked about. They asked, what special challenges do newcomer parents of children with cancer face? But the more important question is: what resources are available to them? Below are three examples of cancer support programs and services to get started with.

Childhood Cancer Canada 

Cancer treatment is expensive. Immigrant family caregivers lack job opportunities and pay out-of-pocket for a range of expenses. They often suffer a decrease in household income. 

Childhood Cancer Canada provides financial assistance to patients and families across Canada through their Emergency Fund program. The organization also offers two types of scholarships for childhood cancer survivors who want to attend college or university. Every year, those who apply between March 1st and April 30th have a chance of getting either $1500 for a general scholarship or $5000 for studies in the medical, health, and pharmaceutical fields. 

Canadian Cancer Society

Caregivers from anywhere in Canada can call the Canadian Cancer Society’s Cancer Information Helpline for free and trusted information on everything related to cancer. Information specialists are available for phone calls from Monday to Friday to discuss topics such as cancer treatment and side effects, finding help in the community, and stress-management for caregivers. The organization uses interpreters when serving non-English speaking people. The Canadian Cancer Society also has a directory on its website that helps newcomers find services like financial support and places to stay within their communities. 

Thirteen parents in the Klassen publication struggled to travel to and from the hospital for their children’s treatment. Some parents couldn’t drive and avoided public transportation to protect their child from the risk of catching an infection. If traveling to treatment centres is a problem, the Canadian Cancer society will provide you with a driver who will take you to your cancer appointments. Their volunteer driving program operates in British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba, and Ontario. Talk to an information specialist to learn more about it.

Kids with Cancer Society

Like the Canadian Cancer Society, the Kids with Cancer Society offers a whole host of free programs and services, but only to children and families residing in Northern Alberta and the Northwest Territories. The Kids with Cancer Society benefits immigrant caregivers who need money for daily living and medical bills. The organization provides emergency funding and educational resources like workshops. Once a year, they also pamper parents with massages, wellness activities, and food. 

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