By DAVID SCALES , Middletown Press Correspondent
DURHAM — Marli Roblee has to wake up a little earlier than most to commute to her job at Aetna. Her first stop is the Middlesex Hospital Cancer Center for radiation treatment to prevent her breast cancer from returning. After her diagnosis in 2003, she was unsure how much to tell her 9-year-old son Jeffrey, but a solution appeared when Roblee hosted a field trip and learned of a new outpatient program, Children’s Lives Include Moments of Bravery, at the Middlesex Hospital Cancer Center, 536 Saybrook Road in Middletown.
The free, six-week program is designed to help children of parents or grandparents with cancer deal with the emotional stress the disease can cause. Parent orientation begins at the first meeting with subsequent meetings targeted toward the children. After dinner, an hour and a half of discussing a feeling they call “the emotion of the week” begins to help them understand their feelings.
“It’s a learning experience for the child,” Roblee said. “It’s learning in the sense that it takes away the fear of the unknown. We can handle anything if we know about it,”
By using arts and crafts, the kids learn how to calm their anxiety about a family member’s illness. One exercise is to make a paper box, which is called a “strongbox.” On the box are pictures of things the children make to help them feel better, such as sports, music, friends, etc. After it’s finished, they put inside that they put little slips of paper inside with their worries written on it. The idea behind the box is the worry slips deposited inside and the positive pictures on the outside help children literally place their fear in a box of their own strength.
“Jeffrey put in a couple of worry slips like ‘I’m afraid my mom and dad are going to die,'” Roblee said. “He had my husband and I fill out worry slips, and once you put the worry slip in the box, they’re not weighing on your mind. They’re not weighing on you.”
Roblee discovered a lump on her breast. Thinking it was a cyst, a biopsy was done. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in December 2003, and it was confirmed as malignant in January 2004.
Roblee had many questions. “How do I tell my son? How can I keep him from being afraid? I don’t want to tell him too much, but how much is enough,” Roblee said. “That’s where CLIMB is fantastic!”
The program doesn’t stop with arts and crafts; kids are also familiarized with the equipment used to treat cancer. Jeffrey was shown the room where his mother undergoes radiation treatments and was encouraged by the new weapons in the anti-cancer arsenal.
“He’s asking me questions when he has concerns and it’s not just this glassy-eyed look,” Roblee said. “Now he understands more and we can talk about it and I’m able to reassure him that everything’s going to be fine.”
When not in class at John Lyman Middle School in Middlefield, exercising his love of math, Jeffrey lends a hand at home.
“I’ve been helping her in the house and I’ve been getting things she shouldn’t be getting up for,” Jeffrey said. “I lift things like laundry baskets. It’s tough to know that my mom had cancer and now we’re getting through it and it’s all better.”
Roblee said because of CLIMB, the lines of communication between her and Jeffrey are open wider than before. Jeffrey has begun to teach his mother how to snowboard. He also said she does pretty well on powdery snow, but tends to wipe out on icy slopes.
Wendy Peterson, is an advanced practice registered nurse, specializing in psychiatry and psycho-oncology, who runs the program. She said the goal is to help children find ways to cope with strong feelings associated with having a sick family member. Parents are also given support to help speak with their children if fears and questions arise.
“When somebody has cancer, people normally get upset,” Peterson said. “It’s normal for a family’s life to be disrupted, it’s normal for children to have feelings, and it’s necessary for children to express how they feel and have age-appropriate information.”
Anne Campbell-Maxwell, administrative director for the cancer center, discovered The Children’s Treehouse Foundation, a nonprofit organization in Denver, Colo. Basing it on their model, CLIMB has gained some national attention. She recently returned from a national psycho-oncology meeting where the CLIMB program was introduced to a national audience with The Children’s Treehouse Foundation founder, Peter van Dernoot.
The six-week pilot program finished in December, and another is beginning, and hopes are high for a continuation. Jeffrey and Marli said they would both love to come back.
Peterson remains hopeful that the program will not only be able to continue, but expand. The group will have a reunion in April.
“We’re really trying to increase awareness so that more children can be referred to the program,” Peterson said.
“Our ultimate goal is to increase the participation of the children and we’re also developing a concurrent parent program.
“The parent program will be focused on giving parents information about what is age-appropriate information to give children because children have different cognitive abilities depending upon their age.”
Roblee hopes to keep hitting the slopes and one day see Jeffery get his license, go to his prom, and one day rock her grandchildren. She is currently undergoing reconstructive surgery.