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A Remarkable Program for Children of Parents With Cancer

Two weeks ago I learned that my best friend from college has liver cancer.
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She is a mom in her 30’s like I am, with two young kids, a career and a full life ahead of her. We live in different cities which is hard on me because I feel helpless in her fight against this insidious illness. Of course I have been sending care packages and good vibes her way, but I have also been trying to find ways that I can help from so far away.

Then last week I received an email from a another friend of mine, Honor, who fought and won her battle with colon cancer just a few years ago. She too is a woman in her 30’s with two young kids. Her email to me announced a launch of her new non-profit business venture called East County CLIMB. CLIMB is a special support program developed by Children’s Treehouse Foundation, which is dedicated to the emotional support of children who have parents with cancer.

I am so moved and impressed with this organization, particularly with the recent news of my friend’s illness, that I want to spread the word as much as I can. Not only do I think it is an incredibly important organization, but it is also a roundabout way for me to show support for my BFF.

I asked Honor some questions regarding how CLIMB came to be, how it works, and how families can get involved.


Mama Mary: What does CLIMB stand for?

Honor: CLIMB stands for Childrens Lives Include Moments of Bravery

MM: What gave you the inspiration to begin this program?

H: I was 34 when I was diagnosed with Stage 3 colon cancer. It was a sobering moment when I realized the fight that lay ahead of me and my family. My first thought was about my kids and how they would handle having a mommy with cancer. What toll would my illness and treatment take on them? How would I ease their fears when I have so many of my own?  I found there were lots of support groups for people with cancer but nothing for kids whose parent have cancer. I did find some great kid books* about having a parent with cancer or was going through treatment. I noticed how my daughters face lit up when we read those. Once she even said “ Oh Mom it’s like WE wrote this book!” She loved having something she could relate to.

Being a former teacher I know how important it is for kids to know they are not alone when faced with a struggle or life changing situation, and how the need for communication is crucial. So I secretly vowed to myself that when I recovered and life resumed some normalcy, I would see to it that there would be something for children facing cancer in their lives in my area.

MM: What kinds of activities do you do with the kids in your program?

H: CLIMB is a six-week program. We meet once a week and each week we talk about a different emotion. We meet at the cancer center and start with pizza. Then we do an art activity as it relates to the emotion. For example, one night we make boxes, and decorate them. We draw anything that we worry about and put worries in the box. After the art we circle up and those who wish to share about what they put in their box – do just that. This allows kids to hear and relate their emotions to others. Then when they go home that night, Mom or Dad says “tell me about your project” and this starts the conversation at home.

MM: What advice can you give to other young moms who are battling cancer?

H: First and foremost, find a support group for yourself, either in person or on-line. On-line groups are awesome as you can read and ask questions at any hour of the day and meet so many others facing the same thing. You can learn so much from others who have gone through it.

Then find a support group for your kids, made up of other kids who can relate to what they are going through.

Keep the lines of communication open with your kids, let them know they can talk about cancer as much or as little as they want.

Use books. Kids love books and they can be a very neutral way of approaching some of the harder subjects.

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Don’t be afraid to ask others for help. So many people want to help, so let them!

MM: What advice can you give to someone who has a friend going through chemo (like me)?

H: I really appreciated when friends called and asked me to do normal things like go to coffee. I valued normal conversation. Making a friend laugh or distracting her from cancer or chemo is a real treat! I had a dear friend who visited me regularly during chemo and brought my old high school notes and letters to read and entertain me with. It was priceless.

The other advice I would give would be to ask what that friend needs, and keep asking until she has a need. And be there as long as the chemo lasts, not just in the beginning.

MM: What messages do you hope the kids “go home with” after participating in your program?

H: It is my hope that by finding CLIMB a child can meet friends who are going through the same thing, and they will know they are not alone. I hope CLIMB answers the questions they may have, and eases their fears. It is my wish that parents struggling with cancer can rest a little easier know their children are coping and doing better because of being in CLIMB.

MM: Who is eligible to participate?

H: CLIMB is open to school age kids. K-8

MM: How much are the sessions and what is the best way for people to register?

H: Thanks to a generous donation from Grossmont Healthcare District, CLIMB is FREE to any child.

Parents can register anytime at

Classes are held at the David & Donna Center for Cancer at Sharp Grossmont in La Mesa.

Also, there is a national website with great information and locations of other CLIMB programs all across the country.


I am truly grateful to Honor for this interview and I am beyond inspired by her determination to kick cancer’s butt, and to now help other moms and families who are facing the same challenges she did.

If you live in the San Diego area, please spread the word about this incredible program.

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Recommended reading for families coping with cancer:

  • Helping Your Children Cope With Your Cancer – A Guide for Parents by Peter Van Dernoot
  • When a Parent Has Cancer: A Guide to Caring for Your Children by Wendy S. Harpham
  • When Your Mom Has Cancer: Helping Children Cope at Home and Beyond by Maryann Makekau, Derek K Makekau
  • The Hope Tree: Kids Talk About Breast Cancer by Laura Numeroff, Wendy Schlessel Harpham, David M. McPhail
  • Our Mom Has Cancer by Abigail Ackermann, Adrienne Ackermann
  • Tickles Tabitha’s Cancer-tankerous Mommy by Amelia Frahm
  • Our Family Has Cancer, Too! by Christine Clifford


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