This is part of a weekly series that highlights a grant provided by the Foundation.
In the United States, the American Cancer Society estimates that more than 315,000 parents with children under 18 will be diagnosed with invasive cancer each year. For the children, more than 667,000, this permanently changes the family dynamics, evoking in the children many fears, doubts and questions about their future and that of their parents.
“Sometimes children may think, ‘Dad doesn’t want to play ball with me anymore, doesn’t he love me? Or ‘Mom is always sleeping. Why can’t she spend time with me?’ We try to educate the kids about the various side effects of treatments so that they are more aware of changes they may witness within the home,” said Holly Torbic, Outreach Coordinator at Tides, Inc. Tides, a non-profit organization that helps grieving children and their families, along with the Cancer Program at Mount Nittany Medical Center, administers CLIMB (Children’s Lives Include Moments of Bravery), a program that seeks to help children whose parents or loved ones have recently been diagnosed with cancer, by achieving five goals:
- To educate children about cancer, the various forms of treatment, and possible side effects related to treatment
- To normalize the child’s feelings of sadness, anxiety, fear and anger
- To increase communication among family members
- To understand and cope with the dramatic changes they are witnessing and experiencing in the home, including: the physical and emotional changes their loved one is experiencing, the shift in roles of family members that often occurs, and the lost time together due to doctor appointments, treatments and increased need for rest.
- To meet and share feelings with other children in similar situations, and learn they are not alone.
When Denver, Colorado, native Peter van Dernoot’s wife was diagnosed with cancer, the couple felt very alone in their quest to meet the needs of their two children while focusing on the medical needs of Mrs. Van Dernoot. “Parents and adults often worry about meeting the needs of the children, but find they do not always have the time and energy to do so,” Torbic said. “If the adults know that the needs of their children are being met, it provides peace of mind, and lessens the burden the adults often carry.”
Peter wanted to ensure that other families going through a similar experience would feel more equipped to handle such difficult challenges, so he founded the Children’s Treehouse Foundation and created the CLIMB program, which has now been implemented throughout the nation and worldwide, from Ireland to Japan to Central Pennsylvania.
Administrators have had to tailor CLIMB, the basis of which is a 6-week program, to the unique circumstances of this area and the people living in it, Torbic said. The rural setting makes it difficult for some families to make it to weekly meetings, while other families are hesitant to commit to a six-week program, not knowing how treatments will affect the way they’re feeling down the road.
So in the last month, Kristin Sides, Patient Navigator at the Cancer Program, has contacted families and asked how they can adjust the program to best meet their needs. She found that what families want most is an opportunity to get together with other families who are going through a similar situation.
“In many cases, the child may not know anyone else with a parent or loved one with cancer,” Torbic said. “CLIMB would provide an opportunity for these children to get together and see they are not alone, that there are other families taking similar journeys.”
To meet this need, the organizations are thinking about tweaking the program by doing one-day retreats for the families, as well as getting them together once a quarter to provide educational materials and to let them talk about how they are feeling, Torbic said.
Torbic said it is important to provide information to children about what cancer is, the various forms of treatments and possible side effects, and to empower them by discussing ways they can help their loved one.
“Just getting them a glass of water, a blanket, making a card, or just sitting with them…those things mean the world to someone’s who is not feeling well,” Torbic said.
The Centre County Community Foundation provided Tides and Mount Nittany Medical Center a grant of $3,000 for the CLIMB Program, which is free to participants. The money has been used to provide adults and children with resources to help the families work through this difficult time in their lives. This includes educational materials, as well as art and crafts, given that children can often express themselves through art when words may be too difficult to find. Tides is also hoping to use the funding toward outside events that will give families affected by cancer the opportunity to forget about their troubles and have fun, if only for a day.
“If we can educate children about cancer, provide a safe place for them to share their feelings, open communication among family members and help them realize they are not alone,” Torbic said, “then the CLIMB Program will have succeeded.”