Byline: Tracy Jones
Charlie Brumback, 6, loved twirling his mom's long, blond hair.
So when Jennifer Brumback, Charlie's mother, began to lose hair above each ear from radiation treatments, it was those two patches of missing hair that bothered Charlie the most.
But for his mother, it was more than just the hair loss - it was the guilt she felt about having her children experience something as scary as cancer.
"One of the first immediate things I thought of was, how will life treat them without a mother?" Jennifer Brumback said.
There are several support groups, runs and fundraisers for women with cancer, but the children of those diagnosed has been an under-served group in Jacksonville, said Jennifer Maggiore, a social worker specializing in oncology and support program coordinator for Kids Together Against Cancer.
"As parents, we take care of our children when we're sick; we don't expect to get sick ourselves," Maggiore said.
Kids Together Against Cancer, a free program available to any child whose parent or caretaker has been diagnosed with some form of cancer, was created in the fall of 2009 to help children understand and cope with their parent's illness and treatment. The program has already served about 40 children, including Charlie and his 9-year-old brother, Thomas.
About 1.5 million Americans who have been diagnosed with cancer have at least one child younger than 18 living with them, according to research by Wake Forest University published in June. The same study also found 14 percent of all survivors, or those who have had some period of remission, live with their minor child, and 18 percent of those most recently diagnosed have a child in the home.
In December, the Centers for Disease Control released a report stating women delay having children until later in life. And since women are more likely to develop cancer as they age, it increases the likelihood they'll have children in the home at the time of diagnosis.
Brumback was diagnosed with an aggressive brain tumor, about the size of half an orange, on a Saturday and was in for surgery at Duke University in North Carolina the following Friday, so she had to tell her children about her illness quickly, she said.
"It was all very stunning for us, very sudden, and you just cannot shield your children from cancer, as much as you try," Brumback said.
The American Cancer Society recommends parents be as honest and upfront as possible with their kids, and suggests parents tell their children the name of their cancer, the body part affected, how it will be treated and how the children's lives will change.
A study by the Department of Public Health and Epidemiology in the United Kingdom found children who were not told by their parents directly about a cancer diagnosis resulted in poor performance in school and sports and weakened relationships they had with friends and family.
Brumback said having her children participate in the Kids Together Against Cancer program a few months after her surgery allowed them to express their feelings about their mother's illness, and it came at a time when the Brumbacks needed it most.
"It's not like we prepared for this a long time and did a lot of research as to what was out there," Brumback said. "Having this program, it really helped my children."
Kids Together Against Cancer works with three art educators from the Cummer Museum and four social workers to create six-week workshops. They are held four times a year with curriculum tailored to each child's age.
Maggiore said the program not only helps children express and explore their feelings, it also allows them to meet other kids who are experiencing the same emotions.
"We use cancer as a teaching mechanism for how to cope with other things in their life that don't go as planned," Maggiore said.
One of the children who participated in the last session of Kids Together Against Cancer was Kaylee Murray, 7. …