Heather vanKoeverden stood in Target, a place seemingly designed for people just like her, a mother of young children. But on this Target run, the familiar aisles and endcaps felt utterly foreign. "I just didn't fit in," Heather says. That's because Heather was no longer simply a mother of young children. She had a new identity: the mother of a child with cancer. Heather's then 3-year-old daughter, Ana, had been diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. And that made everything — everything — different. "You often feel isolated after diagnosis," Heather tells us. "The rest of the world goes on."
Ana's care team at Mayo Clinic recognized the devastating impact of her diagnosis, of course. But Heather soon found another group of people who understood just how much her family's world had changed. On the advice of someone from Ana's medical team, Heather attended an event sponsored by Brighter Tomorrows, a nonprofit that helps families affected by childhood cancer. The organization was launched in 2007 in Rochester by four mothers of children with cancer. Their goal: to ensure no family walked the difficult journey alone.
That kind of support is invaluable to patients and their families. And it's something that doesn't go unnoticed by the medical teams caring for patients.
"Families can support and teach and mentor each other in ways that the best health care providers cannot," says Gesina Keating, M.D., a pediatric neurologist at Mayo Clinic. That's because they understand, better than anyone, the incredible challenges and profound changes that face all members of a family after a child's cancer diagnosis. It can be a terrifying, stressful and overwhelming time for patients, their parents and siblings.
Addressing those and other emotional needs happens through an "emphasis on relationships," says Caitlin Barnes, executive director of Brighter Tomorrows. "Our families comfort and help one another. We provide a safe space for them to do that."
At Brighter Tomorrows, that comes by way of things like monthly family gatherings that begin with a shared meal. Then parents gather to talk with each other and learn from guest speakers, while their children sing, play games and make crafts. The kids' program — dubbed B.L.A.S.T. for 'Bonding, Loving and Sharing Truth' — serves both patients and their siblings.
"When a child is diagnosed with cancer, your whole family is going through it," Heather says. "So often siblings are left out of what's happening." One thing she appreciates about her connection with Brighter Tomorrows is that it is "truly for the whole family."
That comes through at events and retreats designed to connect newly diagnosed families with other families whose children are similar in age, gender or diagnosis. These families also receive a care kit, which includes a cooler to transport medications as well as gift cards, parking passes, snacks and other items. And volunteers make visits to hospitalized patients, providing comfort, distraction and love. There's also a bereavement program — Tomorrow's Chapter — for those living with the unimaginable loss of a child.
"I'm constantly astounded by our families," Barnes says. "They are fighting a battle for their families and offering support and comfort to one another. It's an honor to serve them."
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