UAMS CLIMB Leads Kids Out of Cancer Isolation

By Marty Trieschmann

Support groups like CLIMB are scarce. UAMS offers one of only two in Arkansas.

“Cancer is hard. It just is. You’re not supposed to do it by yourself,” said Darby Harmon, one of four UAMS social workers who helps run the program in its third year at the Cancer Institute.

At an age when most children are drawing pictures of their favorite book or movie character, the five who came to CLIMB for six weeks drew pictures about their feelings, which range from sadness, fear, and confusion to outright anger.

“They’re dealing with some very serious, intense emotions that can be crippling without help,” said Harmon.

It’s not just the fear of losing a parent that children need help coping with but also the disruption of family roles and routines as well as the temporary loss of the parent caused by symptoms of the disease and the side effects of treatment, according to an article about CLIMB in the Journal of Psychosocial Oncology.

CLIMB, which stands for Children’s Lives Include Moments of Bravery, is modeled after an emotional support intervention program developed by the Children’s Treehouse Foundation that teaches coping skills and strategies for children to explore and express their feelings about the cancer in their family.

Feedback from the UAMS CLIMB program that ended March 15 suggests it was invaluable for the entire family, not just for the children. The program is funded by an anonymous donor.

“Our family is tighter now than it has been in a long time,” said one parent. “I guess we’re doing okay.”

The group of five children and 11 adults included families from Little Rock, Conway and Alexander. Diagnoses included lymphoma, prostate cancer and breast cancer. All of the participants attended all of the sessions.

“This is one of the most devoted groups we have had,” said Harmon. “These caregivers are really invested in these kids.”

Each weekly 90-minute session of CLIMB focused on one emotion or feeling. The adults and children had dinner together and then split into two groups for creative expression activities and came back together at the close of each session to share their artwork and experiences.

Harmon and Tiffany Hadden, LCSW, facilitated the children’s group that met simultaneously during the parent group, which was led by Harriet Farley, LCSW and Cindy Dillport, LCSW. Disreal Herron, MSW, assisted as an intern. The team plans to have multiple CLIMB sessions throughout the year.

“One of the first issues we dealt with head on is what happens if my parent or loved ones dies,” said Harmon. “Rather than suppress it, we talk openly about who will take care of them if that were to happen.”

The children’s group also focuses on cancer education to dispel common myths that many children have about the disease — myths like ‘they caused the cancer’ and ‘you can get cancer from public places.’

During medical play with dolls, the children even learn where the chemotherapy port goes.

At the same time, parents and family members learn more about child development to better understand their child’s thinking.

“Magical thinking is something we talk a lot about with the adults,” said Harmon. “When you’re an adult, it’s easy to forget that a 7 year old doesn’t think rationally.”

Parents also learn some consistency in how to discuss emotions, giving them a common language to recognize their child’s emotional state.

“I think I’m more intentional talking about emotions with him,” said a parent with breast cancer.

“Parents said how great it was for their children to have an outlet to process their feelings, learn more about cancer and connect with other kids going through a similar experience,” said Hadden.

The final night of CLIMB included a surprising amount of laughter. The children made get-
well cards for their caregivers that elicited some tears. To the pomp and circumstance of the graduation song, each child stepped up to receive a framed certificate and graduation cap.

With all the adults cheering them on, each child rang the bell in the 6th floor Infusion Clinic recognizing the completion of their time in CLIMB. It’s not a coincidence the bell is also rung by cancer patients when they finish their active treatment.

“I’m sad that this is ending,” one parent said.

“The process of coming here even in the middle of chemo has really been amazing,” said another.

“We became like a little family.”