Friday, February 29, 2008

Cancer girl's brave little helpers

5:00AM Saturday March 01, 2008
By Eugene Bingham

During her months of life-saving cancer treatment, Petra Hancock just wanted to be a normal kid.

Surrounded by doctors, nurses and her fearful parents, she was a 5-year-old child at the centre of a deadly serious adult world.

Fortunately, solace was never far away. It would come from her twin sister, Libby, who would sit on the Starship hospital bed with a comforting arm around her; or from her 6-year-old brother, Rory, who would lead her to play or paint.

"When she'd have all these adults around her prodding and poking, to have her brother and sister there made it okay for her to switch off and be a kid," Petra's father, Chris, of Whenuapai, said this week.

Petra, whose story appeared in the Weekend Herald in December, is the face of the Child Cancer Foundation annual appeal this month.

For Mr Hancock and his wife, Toni, one of the most important ways the foundation helped was to make them aware of the impact cancer has on siblings.

Research by a foundation volunteer has found that just as it was important for Petra and children like her to have siblings by their side, it was vital the siblings had support too.

The researcher, Rosie Dobson, said brothers and sisters of cancer patients should be made to feel included.

"Allowing them to come up to the hospital can give them a better understanding," she said. Miss Dobson, a research associate at Auckland University, found a mix of impacts during her research, which has been presented internationally.

"Some negative effects included high depressive symptoms and increased anxiety, but there were also some positives such as a feeling that it had brought the family closer together or taught them to be more patient.

"They can be scared about what's going to happen and there was a mention of jealousy."

Parents and other family members should acknowledge what the siblings were going through and that the experience is having a major impact on them too, she said. Mr Hancock said Petra's siblings suffered in their own way, sometimes struggling with the attention being focused on her.

It became particularly important to make sure Libby and Rory understood what was happening when Mrs Hancock's eldest brother died of cancer late last year, explaining that Petra's illness was different.

Petra, who also has a baby brother, Ned, and a 16-year-old half-brother, Josh, will undergo years of scans and check-ups but her cancer is in remission after a nine-month regime of surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

Her face began appearing on TV this week during advertising for the foundation's March 10-16 appeal.

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