Our Executive Director publishes an article in the AOSW Navigator magazine

When Comprehensive Cancer Care Includes the Patient’s Children
By Denis M. Murray
In February 2016, a public health worker in Colorado stood in front of a statewide audience that was reviewing the Colorado Cancer Plan and announced that, in addition to working on the plan, she had also been diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. In less than one year she had endured six months of chemotherapy, six weeks of radiation, hair loss and the inability to work. Then she said the most powerful thing I heard during the conference: “The hardest part of my cancer journey so far has been telling my 9- and 11-year old daughters that I have cancer.”  Not chemo, not radiation, not exhaustion—telling her children.

Cancer affects the whole family. When doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals establish a treatment plan, the medical side is covered from head to toe, so to speak. But how is it that so few cancer treatment plans consider what cancer patients identify as the most difficult part of their journey—talking with their children and family about their cancer?

The Children’s Treehouse Foundation has created a psychosocial intervention, group-support program for children whose parents have cancer. The support program, for kids ages 6-11, is called CLIMB®—Children’s Lives Include Moments of Bravery. It helps to normalize feelings of sadness, anxiety, fear and anger for the kids and stimulates improved communication between the children and their parents.

The Children’s Treehouse Foundation trains oncology social workers, child life specialists, chaplains and/or nurses at cancer centers around the globe to deliver the program. Yet while The Children’s Treehouse Foundation has spent the last 15 years training oncology professionals in cancer centers worldwide to run the CLIMB® program, to date only 77 of the over 1,400 cancer centers in the U.S. and only 18 cancer centers internationally offer the program. Patient-centered care and comprehensive cancer treatments plans are the ways we talk about cancer treatment. But a comprehensive treatment plan is not truly comprehensive until it includes the children and families of cancer patients.

Lawrence D. Piro, MD, of the Angeles Clinic and Research Institute in Santa Monica, California, stated, “The illness of a parent is among the most threatening events in the universe of a child. Parents are the protectors and source of safety for children. They are the primary source of unconditional love and acceptance, which play a pivotal role in a child’s development of self-esteem and confidence. As a result, when a parent becomes ill, it affects a child at his or her most vulnerable place. The biggest challenge in helping a child through such an experience is getting him or her to talk about it.”

(Photo: Feeling Mask activity in the CLIMB®program)

The CLIMB® program fills this gap exceptionally well. The cancer centers that use the CLIMB® program cannot say enough good things about how it fits into comprehensive treatment. Marisa Nowitz at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, states: “The CLIMB® program has been an invaluable tool for the oncology patients, children, and staff at MD Anderson throughout the past nine years. CLIMB® not only benefits the professionals who receive training by providing practical tools to implement the program, it also provides an immeasurable experience and crucial support to the families who participate.”

Lindsay Rehm, RN, BSN, OCN, at Cancer Treatment Centers of America in Tulsa, Oklahoma, shares: “…we are completely focused on patient-empowered care, which means that we put the patient at the center of everything we do. I’m a huge supporter of CLIMB®, as it allows me as a nurse to empower not only the patient, but the entire family. Patients frequently ask me, ‘How do I explain my cancer to my kids?’ CLIMB® provides me with an answer to that pivotal question and allows me to offer support to our patients and their families during their journey.”

And leave it to a social worker, Blair Edgar, MSW, LCSW, at Sacred Heart Cancer Center in Pensacola, Florida, to capture it this way: “We absolutely love the CLIMB® program…This is the most rewarding program I have ever done in my career!”

Lindsey Gutierrez, R.T.(R)(CT), is a computed tomography technologist at the June E. Nylen Cancer Center in Sioux City, Iowa, and has been trained to run CLIMB®. Gutierrez writes, “Within the Children’s Treehouse programs, these groups also are used to educate the children about the treatment mom or dad is receiving. Seeing how the treatment machines work, meeting the health care workers who treat their parents, and asking questions help make cancer less scary for children. … Programs such as those created at the Children’s Treehouse can ease the burden of cancer on families and provide them with tools to cope with the emotions their children will experience.”

The Children’s Treehouse Foundation conducts two trainings each year for professionals who want to learn how to conduct the CLIMB® program at their location. You can have a truly comprehensive approach to treatment for your cancer patients by taking the training and starting the CLIMB® program in your cancer center. Information and registration can be found on the Children’s Treehouse Foundation website, or by calling (303) 322-1202.

Denis M. Murray
Executive Director
The Children’s Treehouse Foundation
Lakewood, Colorado