Georgia support group helps kids touched by cancer

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The Tree House Gang meeting begins with a project.

The kids are asked to draw their families and then introduce them.

One at a time, they hold up their drawings.

"This is my dog Remy," one teenager begins.

A group of young sisters huddles around a drawing they made together.

"That's my mom, who has cancer," one girl says.

"Our mom has cancer," her little sister echoes.

Amber Holmes, 16, smiles, holding her stick-figure drawing, as she describes her extended family.
But two years ago, when Amber's mom Yvonne Holmes was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer, Amber couldn't talk about it.

"At first, I didn't want to know anything," Holmes remembers, "I told her not to tell me anything."

Her mother and father worried their youngest daughter, a rising 9th grader, was feeling overwhelmed by the idea she might lose her mom.

"I felt like she was shutting down, and I wanted to take the opportunity to get her to some place where she could talk to someone, and be able to express her concerns," Yvonne Holmes says.

The Holmes found the Tree House Gang at DeKalb Medical Center, a free support group for kids from age 5 to 17, who have a parent with cancer.

Emma Caughman joined the group three and half years ago, right after her father was diagnosed with cancer.

The veterinary technician student holds up her own drawing.  

"This is my dad, but he had cancer and, unfortunately, he passed away," Caughman tells the group. "So, I gave him some angel wings and a halo, because he's up there."

She's now a volunteer with the support group that once was her lifeline.

"My father was diagnosed with cancer when I was 14," she says. "And I was a part of the group for several months before my father passed away.  And, after he passed away, I still wanted to come to the group."

Caughman feels like she belongs here.

She helps Cameron Jones, who just turned 12,  piece together the group's family drawings into a large heart, using band-aids.

Cameron's mom Jessica has been fighting breast cancer for 8 years, and the Stone Mountain Middle sixth-grader looks forward to coming here.

"I like everyone here, and I meet new people," Jones says.

His mom Jessica had planned to come and sit in on the parents' support group in another room.

Instead, his grandmother Melvita Jones is here in her daughter's place.

She tells the group Jessica's cancer,  now stage 4, has been steadily wearing her daughter down.

"The reason she's not here with us right now is it came back," Melvita Jones says. "It just tries to find its way, it's like fighting to survive your body. And right now she's having a real hard time breathing, and she's in a lot of pain."

In their classroom, the children are getting their own crash-course in cancer, taught in a language they can understand.

"They make me feel safe and okay with my mom having cancer," Amber Holmes says.

Cameron Jones likes being able to go into the cancer center, to look at the MRI and CT scanners, and ask questions.

"The coolest thing is we learn new things and take tours of the hospital, to see what our moms are doing when they go away to the hospital," he says.

It's helped him get an idea of what's happening to his mother.

"When she's doing radiation, and when she's not feeling good, I know why now," Jones says.

The kids, like all of us, don't know what the future holds.

But Emma Caughman says they're in this together.

"My heart was broken by cancer, but it was also rebuilt by cancer," she says.  "Because cancer has brought all of these people together, has brought all of these people into my life."

The Tree House Gang is free to children, regardless of where their parents are receiving cancer treatment.

The group meets 3 consecutive Thursday nights every quarter.

Call the DeKalb Medical Cancer Center at 404.501.5701 to learn about upcoming dates and register.