by Carol Chaplin
Hearing a diagnosis of cancer is tough enough, but when mom or dad gets sick, it can turn a child’s life upside down.
Jo Ann Namm, M.S., C.C.L.S., child life manager at the Sheri & Les Biller Patient and Family Resource Center, knows what it is like to have a parent with cancer. Before she joined the staff, her father was a patient at City of Hope and she helped him through treatment.
“I was an adult when my dad had cancer, but I wondered on many occasions what I would say to my child if I was diagnosed with cancer,” Namm said.
Nearly a decade later, those thoughts have come to life through her new educational series called CLIMB (Children’s Lives Include Moments of Bravery), which begins Dec. 2. She will co-facilitate the program with her child life staff, Jessica Kubasak, M.S., C.C.L.S., and Marisol Trujillo, M.S., C.C.L.S., and clinical social workers Sandra Rizo-Luu, M.S.W., and Carolina Rodriguez, M.S.W.
Using group discussion, activities and arts and crafts, CLIMB will teach children of a parent with cancer how to identify and express their feelings and adopt positive coping skills. Children will learn about cancer and the various treatments and side effects that may affect their parents, while parents will learn age-appropriate ways to help their children understand their feelings.
CLIMB was developed by the Children’s Treehouse Foundation in Denver. It provides cancer centers and hospitals with training to launch support programs for children whose parents have cancer. The organization’s workshops teach facilitators how to implement the program at their own institutions.
Namm, who joined City of Hope to develop its Child Life Program in 2003, after her father’s death, said CLIMB fits perfectly with City of Hope’s philosophy of addressing all aspects of wellness and comprehensive care among patients and families. Children of adult patients need education about their parent’s illness and help with communicating their feelings with their parents. Parents benefit from similar guidance on how to communicate with their children. CLIMB helps families learn these skills and discuss their feelings.
“The program gives both the parent and the child the tools to have open communication,” Namm said. “The sessions are related and build on each other. A child may wonder, ‘Why is mommy’s hair falling out? Why is dad grumpy?’ Another session will navigate the child through the hospital experience so they can better understand.”
Namm stresses that with knowledge, children can become empowered with better coping skills to help them deal with their parent’s illness.
“The CLIMB program identifies the strengths of the child, so that the child can be involved in the parent’s care,” she explained. “So if dad is fatigued, the child can be educated about some of the reasons this is happening. Children can also brainstorm as a group on how to help a parent who is ill while at home.”
Most importantly, children are educated about cancer, its treatments and side effects and the different emotions that arise from their parent’s illness, Namm said. They learn that cancer is not their fault and they are not alone in handling family crisis.
The series is open to inpatients and outpatients and their children, but caregivers also benefit from the CLIMB series since they may be helping with a child whose parent is ill.
The CLIMB support group meets for six weeks on Thursdays from 6 to 7:30 p.m., beginning Dec. 2, in the Biller Patient and Family Resource Center. The program, which is free to patients and families, includes dinner, and registration is required. Contact Jo Ann Namm at 626-256-4673, ext. 64513, for information and availability.