Vicky Phelan (guest editor): Supporting children with a parent undergoing cancer treatment

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A programme supporting children affected by a parent’s cancer diagnosis is now available nationwide, writes Ciara McDonnell.

When Attracta Foley was diagnosed with breast cancer on January 14 this year, her first instinct was to shelter her three children — aged 11, nine and seven — from the news.

“I can be away with work quite often so it was plausible for me to fall off the face of the Earth for a week or two,” she says. “The nurse in the breast clinic said to me: ‘Don’t do it that way’. She told me that I would regret it and assured me that I would know what to say when it came to the time.”

Ellen Joyce, director of services at Cork ARC, says that Attracta’s reaction is a natural one, but that it is crucial to be as honest as possible when it comes to children and a cancer diagnosis.

“It’s so normal to want to protect your children from any worry or upset and that is something that I would want to assure any parent.

“The worst thing for kids is that they hear this from somebody else. If their parents tell them, the trust is there, they understand that they are going to be told everything — so the fear is not as bad as them hearing it from another child or hearing another adult saying it over the phone.”

That’s where Climb (Children’s Lives Include Moments of Bravery) comes in. This six-week, closed-session programme is aimed at children aged five to 12 years who have a significant adult in their life who has been diagnosed with cancer.

Started by The Children’s Treehouse Foundation of America, Climb offers an opportunity for children to come together to deal with their feelings. The groups are creative, using drama, arts and play to delve into the emotions and fears that arise around cancer.

Up until four years ago, Climb was only available in Tuam Cancer Support Centre and in Belfast, but that all changed, thanks to the determination of mother-of-two Clare Clarke and the Ladies Gaelic Football Association. Clare worked with the LGFA for 11 years and together they raised funds so that Climb could be rolled out through all cancer care centres in Ireland with the support of the Irish Cancer Society.

Today, Clare’s legacy is bigger than she or anyone could have imagined, says her friend and LGFA national development manager Lyn Savage.

I still remember going to visit Clare in her holiday home in Wexford and staying up until six in the morning, trying to think how we could get this programme across the country.

"At the time we were thinking that we could get it into one place,” she says.

Though Clare died as a result of cancer four years ago, her impact and determination have resulted in LGFA rolling out Climb in 38 centres and hospitals.

“Hospitals have been the biggest growth area in the last two years for us,” says Savage. “We want to offer an unrestricted service to all hospitals and support centres so that it’s there for the people who matter in this, and that’s the families.”

Climb has been an invaluable support to Attracta Foley and her family.

“We told our children and explained as best we could,” she says. “We talked about lumps and wigs. We talked about the super medicine that I’d be taking. Then my son said at the end of it all: ‘At least you don’t have cancer’.

“I didn’t know where to start, and that’s how we came to Climb.”

Within a week of Attracta contacting her local cancer support centre in Ballinasloe, her children were enrolled in a Climb programme.

“It has been fantastic. Every night that I have driven the kids home, they have been singing. The woman who is delivering it had cancer herself and has children and there is an oncology nurse who actually gave me chemo yesterday and then went straight down after her shift to be there with my children to explain all about what it’s like on cancer wards.”

Programmes like Climb help children and families face the reality of life with cancer, without fear, says Helen Forristal of The Marie Keating Foundation.

“Often our assumption is that they don’t really know what’s going on, but in fact, they do,” she says. “The mission of the programme is to ensure that every child who has a parent or significant adult in their life with cancer is given the tools to deal with the emotions that come with it. I think it is the essence of cancer care that when you teach children early on how to cope, the conversations open up much more easily.”

Climb reduces the fear and anxiety for children around their parent’s treatment by helping them to share their story with other children who are experiencing the same feelings, and this is key, says Joyce.

“Learning that they aren’t the only kid whose parents have cancer is one of the biggest things that children get out of it. It really connects the children — and that really helps them get through the difficult times.”

The most important thing for parents who are dealing with a new diagnosis is to manage what they need to tell their kids in an age-appropriate way, says Joyce.

“Give them clear information that is relative to their age and also enough that they can digest. Then, let them ask the questions. Some of them may not want to know, and that’s fine. Parents know their kids best and they know how they are going to be. If you trust them and include them you are empowering them.”

For Attracta Foley and her family, Climb and the help of her local cancer support centre has been unexpected and utterly transformative. “This journey is not easy, but the support we are receiving has been unreal — it has helped us to navigate all the difficult questions and emotions. That is invaluable to our family.”

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‘I was determined our family would not splinter’

Catherine Buggy’s husband Paul died in December 2016 from a brain tumour. She says that the Climb programme was instrumental in helping her children cope with the loss. “It is all very surreal when your loved one is diagnosed with cancer. We knew that we were dealing with an end-of-life diagnosis.

I felt that if I was the only parent left then our children had to trust me 100%. If I said ‘we’re okay’, then they needed to feel that we actually were okay. To me, trust was the most important thing.

“From the moment we realised that Paul’s diagnosis was terminal, we had a full year to get everything organised and put in place. We spent the year taking photos and getting as much information as I could get from him that I could pass on to the kids.

Catherine, Aisling, Adam and Elena Buggy
Catherine, Aisling, Adam and Elena Buggy

“Our son Adam was a teenager at the time of diagnosis (then 13) and we were advised that he would need the counselling after the event but that Elena and Aisling (then 10 and six) would need some help to understand what was going on and that’s how we ended up enrolling in the Climb programme.

“We had a routine around the session every week. Paul would come along in the car to keep us company. Some days the girls would either fight like cats or dogs in the car after the session and other times they’d be calm.

“We had been advised that the girls were being told it was totally confidential and they needn’t worry about upsetting us, so we decided from the beginning we wouldn’t even ask them about it. We let this be their private thing, where they could say the worst things about us if they wanted to,and not have to worry about it.

“It transpired that the days they were quiet in the car, they were thinking this through and working out something that had been discussed in the group, and the days they were fighting, they were getting something out of their system.

“I was determined that our family would not splinter after Paul died. We talked through everything at every point in his illness. Climb really helped the girls to process their feelings. They made lovely things like worry boxes and masks to illustrate their feelings- they still have the boxes in their room.

“Throughout this whole process, it was a relief to Paul and to me that the team running the Climb programme were giving our girls the emotional support that they needed.”

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