Occupational Therapists: How They Help Kids With Cancer Become Independent

Just because a child’s cancer is located in one specific part of his body doesn’t mean that the rest of him isn’t profoundly impacted by this disease.

That’s why it takes a team of specialists to help childhood cancer patients get back to the business of just being kids. In fact, that’s more or less the goal of one specialty, in particular: occupational therapy.

Here’s what Madeline Brown, MOT, OTR/L, a member of the Rehab Services team here at Children’s, has to say about how occupational therapists help kids with cancer.

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Q: How would you describe your job to someone who doesn’t know what an occupational therapist is?

Madeline Brown: Occupational therapy strives to help people be independent in all of their daily activities, which we call occupations.

With kids, the two most important occupations are self-care skills and play. It sounds simple, but a lot goes into these two categories.

Self-care skills and play can sometimes be limited by cancer. There are issues with fatigue, decreased endurance, or neurological deficits, such as:

  • Muscle weakness
  • Decreased balance
  • Decreased coordination

So, as a pediatric occupational therapist, I work on all of these skills through a child’s favorite occupation: play. We use age-appropriate toys, games, equipment, and activities to help them build their strength, balance, and coordination.

At Children’s, our occupational therapists also work very closely together with our physical therapists and speech therapists. Through all of these disciplines, we are able to look at each child holistically and make sure she is achieving her highest potential.

Q: What are some of the skills or issues you typically work on in kids who have cancer?

Madeline: We work with inpatients on a variety of skills, depending on the type of cancer and course of treatment. These skills might include:

  • Independence in self-care
  • Strengthening muscles
  • Increasing tolerance or endurance in activities
  • Overcoming neurological deficits

Our outpatients might be getting treatment for neurological problems—like balance or coordination issues, struggles with fine motor skills, and delays in developmental skills. Or we might work with them to strengthen their muscles and build their endurance, as well.

Q: Do you typically work with kids during or after cancer treatment?

Madeline: I actually work with kids both during and after treatment.

In the inpatient setting, I work with a lot of our kids and teenagers after they have received their chemo for a specific cycle of treatment, and while they are waiting for their blood cell counts to recover. Occasionally, I’ll start working with older kids while they are receiving their chemo treatment.

Kids who receive their treatment as outpatients come to outpatient therapy throughout their treatment course, too.

And some of our inpatients continue outpatient therapy once they are discharged. Usually, the kids who are getting outpatient treatment are patients who have more neurological deficits rather than weakness or low endurance.

Q: Why and how did you become an occupational therapist?

Madeline: I actually started out in college with the plan to double major in journalism, and nutrition and fitness. My goal was to write for a health magazine. But shortly into those programs, I realized I wanted something more hands-on and started looking into the health professions themselves.

When I discovered occupational therapy, I started shadowing people working in the field and instantly fell in love with it.

occupational therapists

As an occupational therapist, I get to help kids gain independence in the activities and occupations that are meaningful to them. Each day is different, and I rarely go a day without learning something new.

Anisa Hoie
I've been a nurse for nearly 32 years, mostly taking care of kids with cancer. My job is to give the kids and their families a personal touch while they go through treatment.

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