Supportive Care in Cancer

, Volume 26, Issue 3, pp 797–805 | Cite as

Accessing support before or after a parent dies from cancer and young people’s current wellbeing

  • A. Varathakeyan
  • F. E. J. McDonaldEmail author
  • P. Patterson
  • K. Nicholson Perry
  • K. R. Allison



To examine differences in distress and unmet needs between bereaved adolescent and young adult (AYA) offspring who accessed support before and after being bereaved by parental cancer, and to explore aspects of their cancer experience that influenced their help-seeking.


Phase 1: Surveys completed by AYAs (11–26 years) bereaved by parental cancer were subjected to analysis of covariance examining differences in distress and unmet needs between those who accessed support before (n = 159) and after (n = 212) parental bereavement. Phase 2: Semi-structured interviews explored the cancer experiences of bereaved offspring (n = 8) and factors that influenced their decision to seek support.


Phase 1: There were no significant group differences in distress and unmet needs; however, older and female AYAs reported higher levels of distress and unmet needs. Interestingly, individuals who accessed support pre-bereavement were older on average (M = 17.35 years, SD = 3.26) than those who accessed support post-bereavement (M = 15.73 years, SD = 3.26). Phase 2: Three themes emerged centred on socio-emotional developmental changes during and after the cancer trajectory. These related to: participants’ meaning-making and changes in understanding of the cancer experience, changing relationships and desires to fit in, and understanding of their own emotional needs.


While no differences were found in unmet needs and distress between those who sought support pre- or post-bereavement, those seeking support pre-bereavement were older on average. Social and emotional development impacts how bereaved offspring access psychosocial support. Awareness of these issues can assist in improving support by ensuring services are age appropriate and families are sufficiently supported.


Parental cancer Bereaved offspring Adolescents and young adults Help-seeking 



The authors acknowledge the generosity of all the young people involved in this study, as well as the helpful comments from the reviewers.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical approval

Both phases of the study received ethical approval from the Navitas Professional Institute Human Research and Ethics Committee.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • A. Varathakeyan
    • 1
    • 2
  • F. E. J. McDonald
    • 2
    • 3
    Email author
  • P. Patterson
    • 2
    • 3
  • K. Nicholson Perry
    • 1
  • K. R. Allison
    • 2
  1. 1.School of Psychological SciencesAustralian College of Applied PsychologySydneyAustralia
  2. 2.CanTeen AustraliaSydneyAustralia
  3. 3.The University of SydneySydneyAustralia

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