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Duke Medicine: Support group helps kids when parent has cancer

A cancer diagnosis is devastating for anyone. For parents, it comes with the added weight of trying to explain the illness to their children.

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Sarah Lindenfeld Hall

A cancer diagnosis is devastating for anyone. For parents, it comes with the added weight of trying to explain the illness to their children.

About five years ago, Duke Medicine launched the KidsCan! support group, an effort to make those kinds of discussions easier for parents and children.

"Much of cancer care and health care is really focused on the patient," said Cheyenne Corbett, director of the Duke Cancer Patient Support Program. "Our program is really focused on the impact of medical illness on the patient and their family.

KidsCan! is designed for kids ages 6 to 18 with a parent or other significant caregiver, such as a grandparent who is in a parenting role for the child, with cancer.

Duke officials came across the program at Rex Cancer Center in Raleigh and eventually received funding from the Holt Brothers Foundation to start it at Duke. The local foundation was created by brothers Torry and Terrance Holt, professional football players who also played at N.C. State. The foundation honors their mother, who died from breast cancer. KidsCan! also is offered at Alamance Regional Medical Center in Burlington.

Duke's cancer care includes a team of professionals, including family therapists, who work with patients. And Duke was able to tailor the KidsCan! program to their needs.

"What we found was once families start attending, they keep attending," Corbett said. "It's a very helpful resource for them."

Kids meet monthly and talk about different topics - everything from what is cancer to discussions about treatments. They tour the facilities where their parents are patients and have plenty of opportunities to ask questions. For kids who are older and have already been in the program for a year, a KidsCan! 201, of sorts, features more hands-on activities and even more conversation. Corbett said kids at this stage find comfort in spending time with other children who are struggling with similar issues.

Corbett said kids come to the program with all kinds of questions - from why their parent is sick to why mom or day can't play in the backyard anymore. Many wonder why their parents go to the doctor for treatment, such as chemotherapy, and come home feeling even worse.

"That's hard to understand for a kid," she said.

Parents meet as a group at the same time the kids meet. They focus on the same themes that the kids are talking about that month, along with how to parent when mom or dad has cancer.

"Every family is different," she said. "Depending on which family member is sick and what their role and responsibility is, there can be a lot of changes in a family. ... Our job is to talk to them and find out what are the challenges they're facing and help them around those."

KidsCan! at Duke is open to the public. The parent does not need to be seeking treatment at Duke for the family to participate. Families must go through an intake process so Duke staff can understand how they talk about cancer in their household.

"Some of the families who come to us have never used the word cancer in their house," Corbett said.

Right now, between 10 to 15 families are participating, including as many as 35 kids. Most come every month. Some have come every year.

Families sometimes continue to attend after the parent goes into remission. And they can remain for a time after a parent dies. For some, it's an important part of the grieving process as they seek and receive support from the friends made in KidsCan.

"We do have rituals that we do that acknowledge a parent that has died," Corbett said. "We talk to the families about that - how much or how little they want to share."

There's even an alumni group for families that want to stay in touch.

"If they want to still be part of that community of support, they can," Corbett said.

KidsCan! meets monthly. For more information, call 919-684-4497 or e-mail cancersupport@duke.edu. Pre-registration is required. Go to Duke Cancer Institute's Therapy, Counseling and Support Groups page to learn more about KidsCan! and the other support programs Duke offers.
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