Objective: The diagnosis of a life-threatening illness in a child is one of the most stressful events imaginable for parents and is associated with increased anxiety and distress. Despite associations between stress and immune function in animal and human models, the immune function in caregivers of children at the time of a child-related potentially traumatic event, like cancer, is not known. Methods: Nineteen parents (11 mothers, 8 fathers), representing six caregiver pairs, provided blood for natural killer (NK) cell count by flow cytometry and function assays [% NK whole blood, absolute NK whole blood, LU20 (lytic unit) peripheral blood mononuclear cells, LU20 NK cells] and completed self-report measures (acute stress) within 2 weeks of learning their child had cancer. The NK cell assay was also completed with a sample of healthy adults, the immune reference group. Results: There were similar levels of NK cell activity between caregivers and the immune reference group. Immune level and psychological outcomes were not associated. LU20 peripheral blood mononuclear cells and LU20 NK cells were each correlated at r = 0.83 between mothers and fathers in the same family. Conclusions: Although based on a small sample, these preliminary results suggest that knowledge about stress responses in parents of children with life-threatening illness may be important and provide novel data regarding the shared impact of stress on immune function within caregiver dyads.
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