CLIMB-ing out of the Darkness: Helping Children Process a Loved One's Cancer Diagnosis

Katie Larson, photos by Marcy Elwood

Jamie Holm, a senior at Regis Catholic High School, grew up in hospitals. His mom Darla was diagnosed with breast cancer when he was in utero, and Jamie himself has endured chemotherapy treatments for much of his life. In 2008, Jamie’s 11-year-old brother Josh passed away from liver cancer. Shortly after his passing, Darla underwent more rounds of chemotherapy because her breast cancer came back. At the time, Jamie was just 10 years old.

“You see such a weight taken off of these families when they see their children getting taken care of.” – Marcy Elwood, CLIMB Program

Surrounded by worry and stress, Jamie enrolled in the first Children’s Lives Include Moments of Bravery (CLIMB) program. There he met Nan Bethmann, a Marshfield Clinic Oncology Nurse, and Marcy Elwood, a Marshfield Clinic Oncology Social Worker, as well as several other kids his age who were trying to understand the confusion surrounding a loved one’s cancer diagnosis.

Marcy and Nan attended the CLIMB program training session, developed by The Children’s Treehouse Foundation, in 2008 and started the program locally as a way to provide emotional support to these kids. By January 2009, the six-week program was instituted at the Eau Claire Marshfield Clinic campus. Today the CLIMB program has run 30 times, has graduated 161 children, and is offered at a second Marshfield Clinic Cancer Care location in Rice Lake.

With a focus on helping kids ages 5-12 cope with their feelings by gaining knowledge about what cancer is and how it is treated, the program is designed to help parents answer the toughest question when dealing with a cancer diagnosis: How am I going to explain this to my child? In the program, the parents are supported in this tough and unimaginable job, because Nan and Marcy provide the kids with the answers in an empathetic, and interactive setting. According to Nan, the CLIMB program “provides them information at their level so there isn’t so much mystery or confusion, because they are a part of this experience even if they don’t understand it.”

The class focuses on a different topic of discussion and learning each week. Each session typically includes a teaching lesson, a sharing session, and a craft or game as a way for the kids to apply the information taught. “When I was there, I was distracted by all of the fun projects and that taught me that if I was scared or frustrated at home, I could play with Legos, draw, or I could find other ways to distract myself,” Jamie said.

The kids are encouraged to communicate with their parents and the people they trust about what they learned about cancer and their feelings towards the diagnosis. Many of the kids, according to Marcy and Nan, really take an interest in and focus on different feelings and healthy ways to cope with those feelings once the course is taken. In many instances, the parents and family members have learned from the student. “Not many 11-12 year olds have had to call an ambulance a couple of times. I also had to give my mom EpiPen injections and had to help calm her down when she was having these allergic reactions…I had used some of the things I learned from Marcy and Nan,” explained Jamie.

The program also shows kids they are not alone and encourages them to embrace each other during happy and sad times. For Jamie, the friends met through the program continue to be supports. “They are just normal friends, and they have gone through similar things that I have. I know I am not the only one that has been going through something,” he said.

With eight years of experience, the two facilitators love to see the participants excited to learn. In October, Nan and Marcy received the National Exemplary Award from The Children’s Treehouse Foundation. The award was given based on how often the program is held in conjunction with the benefits it brings to the community.

“Some of these kids are going through really difficult things at home. They give us little pieces of what’s in their heart. They will give us little glimpses or ask amazing questions about what they are thinking of,” Nan said. Marcy added, “You see such a weight taken off of these families when they see their children getting taken care of.”

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