Helping children cope with cancer in the family

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Helping children cope with cancer in the family

Cancer has a huge impact on a family, and children often struggle. We look at how one particular charity, Chai Cancer Care, helps them to cope

Alex Galbinski is a Jewish News journalist

Around three years ago, when Gemma Buckland’s husband, Jimmy, now 42, was diagnosed with an incurable form of cancer, the couple weren’t sure whether and what they should tell their twin daughters.
But, having been put in touch with Chai Cancer Care, the charity’s therapist advised them that it was best to be honest.

The girls, aged eight at the time, had different needs. One, Talya, was very keen to discuss her feelings, while the other, Eliana, kept them to herself. Talya went weekly to see a Chai play therapist straight away.

“Everyone has a smile when you go in [to Chai], you get a cup of tea,
a plate of biscuits. It was something purely for Talya. She would talk about it all, and it really helped her,” recalls Gemma. Eliana started music therapy with Chai a couple of months later.

“Eliana would start crying and not know why. Chai’s music therapist taught her how to play the piano. He saw she was a perfectionist and that, when things weren’t going perfectly, she couldn’t cope. So he used music to help her deal with things when they aren’t OK.”

The chemotherapy Jimmy had to stop the growth of his pancreatic neuroendowcrine tumours took its toll on the whole family.

“After the chemo, he’d sleep for a week, not want anyone around him, then he’d try to be around us, but his nerves were bad. He didn’t want to be touched or hugged, and that was difficult for the girls, but they’re so resilient.

“Now Jimmy is on tablets and has scans every three months. The girls no longer see the therapists, although they know the option is there.

“Chai gives you the mechanisms to cope with your anxieties and helped us to answer the children’s questions. I know it’s never going to go away and we’re trying to live with a new normal.”

Chai Cancer Care offers play, art and talking therapies as well as music therapy for children who find it difficult to verbalise their anxieties, from its Hendon base and in some of its 11 satellite sites. Aside from the music therapy, these can also be offered in a child’s school, to ensure minimal disruption.

“Cancer has a massive impact on all the family, not just the person who has it,” explains Chai’s chief executive, Lisa Steele.

“It’s difficult to generalise, because people will be having different treatments and surgery, and people react to things differently but, for example, a mother may not be able to pick up from school, do the school run, make meals or be around after school; there might be a time when one parent is in hospital.

“Emotionally, they might not have the strength or the capacity to be there in the way they would like to or have been previously.”

The person with cancer might also undergo physical changes. Hair might fall out – eyebrows and eyelashes too.

“That has a massive effect on children and how they feel,” acknowledges Lisa. “They react in many ways; some can be angry, some can become introverted, some may not be able to sleep. If parents are not communicating, there can be a lot of fear around for the children. It can be very traumatic.

“It’s a disruption to the family life that a child has been used to and, if we can manage to support those children in a professional way, it is a great benefit to them.”

She adds: “Having somewhere they can go to talk about what’s going on for them and their anxieties is very helpful, so they don’t have to feel they’re upsetting mummy or daddy. They’re allowed to speak about the unspeakable.

“We find that children even as young as two, when they’re going through a parent being ill or even a bereavement, they really develop and come to terms with what they’ve experienced. This sets them up for the future, as they’re addressing it now, rather than waiting until they’re much older.”

The charity does not charge for these therapies and it sees people for as long as they need.

“When people are going through cancer treatment, their finances are often affected so we don’t want to stop anyone having therapies. We will support every child in a family in whatever way is easiest for them as far as possible,” Lisa explains. This includes talking to the teachers of a child whose parent is unwell about how to manage them and the other children around them.

Sasha Finlay was diagnosed with stage two breast cancer five years ago, when her youngest child, Jonny, was nearly four. She underwent chemotherapy for six months, followed by radiation.

“It was very difficult and stressful for him,” says the 52-year-old. “The chemo was absolutely horrendous. Some days I couldn’t get out of bed and I was sick. You lose your hair, your fingernails, your hands and feet begin to peel… I felt like an alien.”

While Sasha attended adult therapies at Chai, Jonny only started weekly play therapy a year after her diagnosis.

“Everybody is so focused on the person who has the disease and sometimes you forget about what’s going on around you, and one day we looked at Jonny and realised we hadn’t thought about how it was affecting him. His behaviour had altered and it hadn’t occurred to us it was because he was watching his mummy be really ill.”

Jonny had become very insecure; he wouldn’t go to sleep by himself, he was constantly worried about when Sasha was going to “disappear” to hospital, and he wanted to be in charge. “Through the help of the therapist, he has settled down and he doesn’t do any of these things anymore,” she says.

Sasha is full of compliments about Chai. “They are all absolutely wonderful – they are very compassionate and are there because they want to help you. It’s such a welcoming, calm place – you feel cocooned from the minute you walk in and it doesn’t matter if you are the cancer sufferer or the spouse; you feel very safe.” 

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