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Mullagh woman Marie Guiney Kelly, who heads up and leads a CLIMB programme with Slainte An Chláir Clare Cancer Care. Photograph by John Kelly

Helping kids deal with ‘the big C’

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“Being a therapist, every day is a school day,” says Marie Guiney-Kelly who has delivered a free support service for 38 Clare children that have experienced the impact of a cancer diagnosis over the last six years.
Stressing that any family dealing with a cancer diagnosis needs support, the Mullagh native enjoys working with children whose parent, brother or sister, member of extended family or other significant adult such as a child minder has cancer.
Now in her sixth year as leader with the CLIMB programme, (Children’s Lives Include Moments of Bravery) Marie brings additional qualifications as a professional counsellor and psychotherapist.
She has also worked with Sláinte an Chlair as a counsellor and therapist helping family members of and cancer patients for the past six years.
There are three families on a waiting list for the programme, two families are currently completing the programme and three families finished it recently.
“The Clare Cancer Centre in Kilnamona and Raheen do amazing work for cancer patients. Management manage to stretch a small pot of money to achieve so much. So many people volunteer, which also makes a big difference.”
Not content with her wealth of experience, she is starting a new online 12-months adolescent psychotherapy course to secure a qualification to work with teenagers aged 13 and older.
Older teenagers who are struggling to deal with a family cancer diagnosis are advised to link in with a counsellor attached to their secondary school.
Before she starts working with children, Marie always links in with their family to establish how much information has already been provided, what area they would like her to focus on and how best she can help the child deal with this difficult diagnosis.
As a starting point with a child, she discusses a particular feeling on a day that might be sadness or confusion. She approaches therapy in a very structured way over six sessions or more if this is deemed necessary.
Using crafts such as masks, she gets a child to open up about their particular feelings and outlines sometimes people mask their emotions by smiling when they are really sad.
“I could say what is a mask about, and get all sorts of interesting answers. A child might say ‘I saw it in a cartoon once’ or we get dressed up and put on a mask for Halloween’.
“If you ask why, they say people wouldn’t know who we are, it is fun and spooky. Children get to choose colours, paints, glitter and other material for making a new mask. This gets a conversation going.”
Before Covid-19, Marie conducted small group sessions, and had to conduct a lot of her sessions through Zoom during the pandemic.
Marie explains some children can think of the worst case scenario when they hear the word cancer mentioned at home, at school or in the playground.
“My friend says your mom has cancer and she could die. A child can build up a big picture in their head. Because mum or dad is sick, the child will not come and upset them with the huge story.
“Sometimes it is great to have someone from the outside to look at emotions and feelings.”
Once a child completes the Climb programme, Marie has found there is less fear of talking to their parents about their concerns surrounding this potentially fatal disease.
“At the end of the programme, most children will feel they can go to their mother and ask her why she spent two days in bed, even though she is getting better. They could be worried the cancer has come back.
“Mom could say sometimes I get tired even when I am recovering from the cancer. That erases the big picture in the child’s head.”
“Harrowing” is the word Marie uses to describe the scenario where a terminal cancer diagnosis has to be delivered to a child that their mother, father or grandparent is going to die.
“Children understand death to some degree, they may have a family dog or goldfish that died. But this is a person they will really miss. Sometimes there is nothing I can say. Sometimes it is a case of sitting with the parent and child together and find ways to calm anxiety.”
Is honesty the best policy for informing children about a cancer diagnosis?
“Top psychologists and research advocates age appropriate honesty. A five-year-old will have heard words like cancer and chemotherapy around the house.
“You might say ‘Dad isn’t feeling very well at the moment, he will be in hospital for some time, the doctors are doing their very best to help him, but he might be tired sometimes’.
“You might hear words like radiotherapy and chemotherapy, but you are safe and it is not your fault.
“Most 12 or 13-year-olds have a smartphone and can google different forms of cancer. This can result in panic for a girl who thinks all the women in her family will get breast cancer if her mother has it.
“I would advise them the best source of information about cancer in the family is their parents.
“If a parent decides they don’t want to tell their child about the cancer, I would respect this. I would never judge anyone or say you should or must, but I would point out if a child doesn’t hear about cancer from their parents, they will hear this story elsewhere, where it may be inflated.”
She advises parents who want to have a serious one-to-one chat with their children about cancer to conduct it during a car journey.
She acknowledges Covid-19 has dramatically increased anxiety levels for both adults and children, which prompts work on meditation, breathing and other calming exercises.
To find out more about the Climb programme contact Clare Sláinte an Chláir on Phone: 087 6912396 email:

by Dan Danaher

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