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The Engaged, Grateful Life for Children with Cancer


 

THE CHALLENGE:

Cancer.  A word that with just six letters can cause overcoming fear and sorrow within many individuals.  This word can often bring about personal memories of family members who have or continue to fight, friends who have experienced it’s horridness, suffering teachers, merely acquaintances, or even oneself.  Whether one knows someone personally with the disease or have just heard a story of an individual suffering, the atrocity that comes with the word, “cancer”, remains fixed in our minds; this is especially true when paired with the word “child”.  No one chooses to have cancer, no adult, no teenager, and no child.  Despite this, every year approximately 9,000 children are diagnosed with cancer.  

More specifically, every-day 43 children are diagnosed with cancer, with six year old being the average age of diagnosis.  From this, more than 40,000 children undergo treatment for cancer each year. These young children not only face extreme, debilitating physical symptoms, but also psychological symptoms including severe anxiety, behavior problems, intense stress, PTSD, apathy, depression, and worries about the future.  These major symptoms can come from physical changes, fear of survival and discrimination, anger, missing school, and isolation, which can be seen in the display below. In turn, their “normal” becomes very different from other children’s “normal”, which commonly comprises of innocence, lack of fear and stress, and every-day childlike activities. It’s undeniable that many of these children suffering from cancer are forced to carry the weight of the world on their shoulders at such a young age.  

Examples of Impacts Cancer has on Emotional Health

 

WHERE DOES POSITIVE PSYCHOLOGY COME IN?

Positive psychology is the scientific study of human strengths and factors that allow individuals and groups of people to flourish; more specifically to have a full and meaningful life.  A widely used concept within this field of psychology is the engaged life, along with notion of gratitude exercises.  Both the concept of the engaged life and gratitude practices are able to benefit these young children suffering from cancer, and the continuous hardships that they endure.  However in order to understand their connection, you must first understand what they are, and how they could positively impact my focus group.

 

THE ENGAGED LIFE: 

What is the Engaged Life?

A significant founder of Positive Psychology, Dr. Martin Seligman, describes the engaged life as an experience in which one feels happiness through engagement.  He further states engagement as “flow”. Those in a state of flow lose themselves so deeply in a given activity that they become completely absorbed in the task at hand, unaware of what is happening around them and any sense of time; they are “in essence unified with what they are doing”.  Individuals in flow tend to feel happy, strong, active, concentrated, creative, optimistic, and have a higher self-esteem after engaging in a flow experience. Put simply, flow increases positive emotions, as it gives us enjoyment.  This increase in positive emotions resulting from engagement can be very beneficial for children suffering with cancer and is able to be experienced in many activities such as  art!

GRATITUDE PRACTICES: 

What are Gratitude Practices?

Positive psychologists define gratitude as more than merely giving thanks, but having a deeper appreciation for something/someone; this creates greater positivity and in turn happiness.  There are an abundance of gratitude practices and methods that are available to help individuals cultivate gratitude in their day to day lives, and in turn promote happiness. More specifically, gratitude practices can help to express gratitude towards oneself, others, religious beings, etc.  

To explore the importance of gratitude further, you can watch the Ted-Talk below of monk David Steindl-Rast who explores the direct correlation between gratitude and happiness.

 

The Neuroscience of Gratitude?

Research depicts that when gratitude is expressed, our brain releases dopamine and serotonin (known as the “happy molecule”). The more we activate these “gratitude circuits”, the stronger the neural pathways will be in the future and the more likely we can recognize what is going right in your life vs. what is going wrong.  When one only notices the negative, it often becomes a habit and these neural pathways then become well traveled. However, if we alter our perspective through gratitude and by focusing on the positive, the more one will stimulate these neural pathways and the stronger and more automatic they will become. In turn, this will lead to more positive emotions and better performance, which can be very beneficial for children suffering with cancer who face immense stress, depression, and other emotional symptoms due to their condition; it is especially easy for them to focus on the negatives during such a dark time in their lives.

Serotonin:

  • – Enhances mood, willpower, and motivation

Dopamine:

  • – Triggers positive emotions
  • – Creates optimism
  • – Fosters camaraderie
  • – Drives prosocial behaviors

 

 

 

THE SOLUTION:

By combining my focus group along with the positive psychology concepts defined above, I have created a catalyst for change.  This solution that I have developed includes a monthly online workshop that will combine the positive psychology concept, the engaged life, and gratitude methods that include creativity and art.  The engaged life/flow will allow the young children to engage themselves in a “normal” artistic activity that is unrelated to their condition, along with promoting a gratitude mindset amongst their horrible situation.  Children often love doing crafts and art projects, and this workshop allows these children to enter a state of flow where they are not thinking about their suffering or concerns of their illness during a fun activity! It further does this in a simple way, merely by having kids follow a set of instructions where they can scroll through a descriptive powerpoint that displays a new gratitude practice each month.  After completing the monthly exercise, they can then share with other children like them (for more logistics see below); simplicity is important as these are young children.  The significant benefits of both an engaged life and gratitude that is cultivated from gratitude practices as discussed above, will undoubtedly positively impact and work to relieve these children’s immense stressors that they are forced to face daily.

  • Many existing camps, workshops, and other methods of relieving the hardships that these children face that are currently present, often requires that an individual is healthy enough to attend.  Therefore, I wanted to make my workshop accessible to all children whether they are in isolation or not. This would allow cancer patients who have poor immune systems or are unable to join together in person, a chance to also be a part of the workshop.  

 

PRESENTATION FOR THE WORKSHOP: 

Below is the presentation that will be shown to the children, displaying the monthly gratitude practice and it’s details.  Along with this, on the last slide of the presentation, you will see examples of future monthly gratitude practices that could be implemented.

 

NOW WHAT?

Now, I encourage you to not only consider the impact cancer has on the physical health of a child, but also the horrible effect it has on one’s emotional health, when supporting children with cancer.  Both the physical and emotional impacts that cancer can generate, severely effects these cancer patients, and is something that is important to remember in times of support. Along with this, I encourage you to engage deeply in gratitude practices of your own in order to promote the benefits of gratitude in your own life.  This can be done in the section below! 

 

JOIN IN WITH THE FUN AND SHARE!

Step into the shoes of a child suffering with cancer who is completing this monthly workshop, and follow the presentation above to create a gratitude flower!  This will allow you to take time out of your busy day to become engaged in the activity, entering a state of flow, along with cultivating gratitude. If the artistic part of the method is too extensive, another option is to draw out the flower on a piece of paper and fill it in with words, just like the instructions on the presentation state.  After this, please share a picture of your masterpiece (big or small!) if you were able to create one, and if not comment the things that you wrote down you were grateful for. You can even share how the gratitude practice made you feel after completing it!   

Share your afterthoughts and artwork here!

Made with Padlet

 

Sources:

“31 Gratitude Exercises That Will Boost Your Happiness.” Positive Psychology Program , 28 Apr. 2017, positivepsychologyprogram.com/gratitude-exercises/.

“Art Therapy.” Friends of Kids with Cancer | Art Therapy, www.friendsofkids.com/art-therapy.html.

“The Benefits of Flow.” The Positive Psychlopedia, 18 May 2016, positivepsychlopedia.com/year-of-happy/benefits-of-flow/.

“Childhood Cancer Statistics | CureSearch.” CureSearch for Children’s Cancer, curesearch.org/Childhood-Cancer-Statistics.

“The Neuroscience of Gratitude.” Wharton Healthcare Management Alumni Association, www.whartonhealthcare.org/the_neuroscience_of_gratitude.

“Positive Psychology / PERMA Theory (Seligman).” Learning Theories, 4 Feb. 2017, www.learning-theories.com/positive-psychology-perma-theory-seligman.html.

“Positive Psychology Center.” Positive Psychology Center, ppc.sas.upenn.edu/.

“Social and Emotional Issues During and After Treatment of Childhood Leukemia.” American Cancer Society, www.cancer.org/cancer/leukemia-in-children/after-treatment/emotional-issues.html.

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COMMENTS: 8
  1. April 26, 2018 by Isabella.Flerlage

    This is such an inspiring project with such a great purpose! I want you to know that you are amazing for doing a project like this, and it will truly change the world if you are able to spread this. When I was younger, I wanted to work in the ronald McDonald house, but have never brought myself to do it. I have always had a passion for working with kids and I want to work with kids with cancer in the future. This project is such a great way to catalyze change and will make such a great impact. It has inspired me to go and work with them, as it is a passion that I want to pursue soon!

    • April 28, 2018 by Melanie Stone

      Thank you so much for your wonderful comment! Ronald McDonald house is a great way to help contribute to these children lives in a positive way, helping bring normality, fun, and human connection to these kids lives. I am so glad that my project has inspired you and pushed you to pursue your passion, I hope you get a chance to work there in the future!

  2. April 26, 2018 by Anne Bingham

    This is such a great project. We do monthly activities at our local Ronald McDonald House and will try the gratitude flower. Thanks for sharing the science and inspiration behind it. I wonder if you have a plan for continuity–do you have many months of activity and communication planned out? I hope so–the kids would like to connect with this artful supportive community.

    • April 28, 2018 by Melanie Stone

      Thank you! I think that a gratitude flower or any of the other activities listed on the last slide of my sample workshop presentation would be wonderful at Ronald McDonald House! And to answer your question, yes! I have many months of activities and communications planned out, as there are so many wonderful artistic gratitude exercises for these children to do other than a gratitude flower. Other examples are a gratitude collage, a gratitude charm bracelet, etc.

  3. April 27, 2018 by Alex Treisman

    What a great project!! You have picked such a great problem that needs fixing. I love how you included a very detailed solution with a presentation about how to actually help children with cancer feel gratitude. I think it such a great idea to create a safe, supportive community for children going through such difficult times.

    • April 28, 2018 by Melanie Stone

      Thank you so much!! I am so glad that you liked my project, I encourage you to try a gratitude exercise of your own 🙂

  4. April 27, 2018 by Terri Nakamura

    Melanie, this is a wonderful project that benefits cancer patients, but might also benefit anyone and everyone. It was interesting to learn that dopamine is released when expressing gratitude—so there are multiple benefits in expressing it. Also, the monthly online workshops, gratitude exercises and other resources included in your project put tools within the reach of many. Great job!

    • April 28, 2018 by Melanie Stone

      Thank you for your kind comment Terri! I agree that this project can undoubtedly benefit anyone and everyone else, beyond children who are suffering with cancer. As discussed above, cultivating gratitude has so many amazing benefits and as stated in the TedTalk, it’s gratitude that makes someone happy not happiness that makes someone grateful. Therefore, it is inevitable that gratitude can help many individuals, including myself! In fact, in this GOA class I had the opportunity of doing a gratitude journal for a week, tracking my moods along the way, in which I saw that expressing gratitude seemed to lead to more positive emotions (in just in one week!). I hope you get a chance to try a gratitude exercise!

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