TACKLING the emotional upheaval of a loved one’s cancer diagnosis is a devastating reality for many Carlow families.
Coping with this devastating news can be different for adults and children, as everyone struggles to come to terms with the potentially overwhelming consequences.
Éist Cancer Support Centre, Carlow runs the CLIMB (Children’s Lives Include Moments of Bravery) programme, which takes cognisance of the social, emotional and cognitive development of the school-aged child and aims to build upon the child’s strengths.
It enhances his or her ability to cope with the stress associated with the parents’ or grandparents’ illness. Developed originally by the Children’s Treehouse Foundation of America, the programme helps to normalise children’s feelings of sadness, anxiety, fear and anger, while stimulating improved communication between them and their parents.
When Mary Walsh’s husband John was diagnosed with lung cancer several years ago, they made a collective decision that their young sons Conor and Tadhg would attend the CLIMB course in Carlow.
“You can be crippled by fear or draw strength from information,” said John at the time. John from Ballybit, Rathvilly had remembered losing his own mother when he was a teenager and how no-one had really discussed his worries with him.
“You have to be honest with your children,” says Mary. “The course didn’t solve their problems, but it gave them the tools to cope. The boys were given details of the treatment their dad would receive; it helped them understand how he might be in poor form from time to time.”
The resources used during the six weeks include a worry box, a ‘feelings’ ball and decoration of a mask, which helped to open up discussion among the Walsh family when the boys came home afterwards.
“We were very open with them. Sad things happen to everyone as you go through life; you just have to live the best way you can,” says Mary.
“We weren’t tiptoeing around the situation; we knew that having the facts would stand to them when John died.”
Mary has spoken with many parents who wish they had done things differently when a loved one’s cancer journey began.
“By answering all their questions as clearly as we could, we realised that by including our children in the stages of John’s illness, we gave them a voice.”
Tadhg, who’s now in transition year and recently completed a module about cancer, told Mary that the CLIMB course had benefited him enormously and gave him more information than his peers.
“I’m in no doubt that the CLIMB experience was very important for them, in spite of what we were going through at the time; we gave it priority for those six weeks,” says Mary. “The open discussion it generated for the whole family was helpful. When my older daughter Brónagh said it took the fear of the unknown away; that she’d ‘never be afraid of anything again’ – that summed it up for me.”
Mary Smyth, one of the trained facilitators, agrees: “What I have learned is that children are more resilient than we give them credit for. When they are informed in an age-appropriate way about what causes cancer (and more importantly, what doesn’t cause it), they are much better prepared for what is happening in the present and what the future might bring. They learn as much from each other as they do from their facilitators.
“I could not recommend it enough for anyone who has children between the ages of five and 12, where cancer has touched the life of the family.”
They also learn that it’s alright to be happy during these hard times. The peer support they enjoy in the six sessions helps them to explore their own feelings in age-appropriate language through a wide range of specially-designed games, drama and art activities.
The next CLIMB programme to be run in the Éist Cancer Support Centre, Carlow takes place over six weeks, starting on Tuesday 30 April from 4.30pm to 5.30pm.
The programme is generously sponsored by the Ladies Gaelic Football Association of Ireland, which fundraises continuously to support the training of facilitators and the associated costs of the nationwide roll-out.
As a result, the course is free to all participants and details/enrolment forms for the upcoming programme can be obtained in strictest confidence from the Éist Cancer Support Centre, Carlow on 059 9139684.