The Whole Family, The Whole Time




There are an estimated 2.85 million children in the U.S. living in a household where a loved one has cancer. Nearly 600,000 of these children are living with a parent who has been diagnosed within the last two years.  Cancer Support Community (CSC) of Greater Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky works to ensure that local children do not have to face cancer alone.

“Kids need a community, too,” says Gretchen Ramstetter, Director of Development at CSC. 

That’s the message behind CSC’s Family and Kid Support programming, which seeks to provide emotional and social support to children diagnosed with cancer or children whose loved one has been diagnosed with cancer.  The family-friendly programming incorporates movement, creativity, games and crafts to create a fun and interactive environment for parents and children to share.

“I remember not knowing where to begin, whether I should be by myself or who would watch my kids,” says Vanessa Krutzer, whose husband was diagnosed with cancer in 2010. “I had my two girls who were 8 and 10 at the time. My husband owned his own business and I was working part time. I stopped everything to take care of him. The whole emotional component of this journey through hell can put you in a dark place.”

“It’s hard enough as it is,” says Ramstetter, a parent of a cancer survivor. “But it’s even more difficult to find the time for yourself. You’re faced with the physicality of it so much that the emotional and psychological sides become secondary. You’re just trying to get through the day, get your kids to school, and it’s almost impossible to make time for family.”

The young children and siblings of cancer patients often perceive the illness indirectly, through wiped-away tears and hushed worried voices. They may be afraid to ask what is happening because of a perception that doing so might cause further suffering. Without attention to their worries, fears and misconceptions, children are at risk for educational and behavioral problems. 

CSC stepped in to fill this void in with evidence-based programming. Walking the Dinosaur, a collaborative effort with Cancer Family Care, is offered to children ages 5-18 and their parents or guardians. The children take part in age-appropriate groups, while a companion group for adult caregivers gives them the opportunity to talk openly about their situation without fear of upsetting the child. The program’s focus is to teach children and parents to communicate and cope effectively. 

“When the kids and parents break apart, there are some great discussions in each group, and then we bring them all back together,” says Ramstetter. “So we are offering each individual something different. Every person is on the same path, but their journeys are very individual in terms of how they are dealing with it, how they can communicate it, and how it affects them emotionally.” 

Getting children to open up about their experiences is obviously quite different from doing so with adults. “When you work with kids, you can’t just sit around in a circle and have a support group.  They don’t just talk about it. You have to do a lot more things to help them communicate and identify feelings, like arts and crafts and games, and then they feel more comfortable expressing themselves. The conversation starts organically, then you can really dig deep into the things that are bothering them,” says Molli Monk, a Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center social worker and CSC facilitator, whose job is to support conversation in the adult or child groups. “It’s very similar to the parent side, where parents are coming in with struggles and they have someone next to them that can say, ‘I’ve been through the same thing and I know how you’re feeling.’ In the children’s groups, the experience is similar. Suddenly the child isn’t alone anymore.” 

 “There’s programming here for everyone, from day one of diagnosis to twenty years post treatment, whether you’re the patient or the caregiver or a parent or sibling,” says Ramstetter. “We’ve had great responses from parents about how sharing stories with each other helps to get them through that darkness.” 

Family and Kid Support represents CSC’s organizational focus on supporting the Whole Family, the Whole Time.  

In addition to Kid Support and Walking the Dinosaur, CSC offers family programs throughout the year, such as Kids Mindfulness Meditation (see highlight), Laughter Release: incorporating yoga and laughter to decrease stress, Kreative Kids: expressive art, music and movement to create camaraderie, Kids in the Kitchen: family friendly cooking classes, and Community Connections: movie nights, outings to concerts and plays, and much more.

For Krutzer, whose husband is now cancer free, some of the most enduring memories she has of that “journey through hell” are of her two girls, who participated in Walking the Dinosaur.  Part of the program includes having the children anonymously write down questions or insights for the parents. “One of my daughters loved it when I made chili, and the social worker told me that the hardest part for her was that I didn’t make that chili anymore because my husband wasn’t able to eat it,” says Krutzer. “That might not seem like a big deal to other people, but it is to me because that’s something I could fix. I could make that for her.”

Every day children, teens and their families are confronting cancer’s impact.  For children and teens, having the opportunity to, both individually and as part of their family, learn about cancer and share their feelings and experience with others is crucial to navigating the emotional and psychosocial change that the cancer diagnosis
can evoke.  

A cancer diagnosis impacts all members of a family – not just one person. And CSC believes that no one, especially children, should face cancer alone. To learn more about children and adult programming, visit CancerSupportCincinnati.org. 

Cancer Support Community – Blue Ash is located at 4918 Cooper Road, Cincinnati, OH 45242. You can reach them at 513.791.4060, by email at info@cancer-support.org or visit www.cancersupportcincinnati.org.

Cancer Support Community – Ft. Wright is located at 1717 Dixie Highway, Suite 160, Ft. Wright, KY. You can reach them at 859.331.5568, by email at info@cancer-support.org or visit www.cancersupportcincinnati.org.