Charlie Higbee undergoes out-of-state treatments to shrink the cancerous growth in his liver. The treatments can take up to two weeks to complete, and for doctors to determine their effectiveness. Until Higbee’s tumor shrinks enough to be surgically removed, he has to wait and endure the side effects of the treatment.
His family has to wait, too.
Higbee’s wife, Allison, his children, Benton, 17, Hunter, 14, Ethan, 11, and Haylee, 7, have all been with him, in that clinical purgatory of cancer treatment — wait-and-see — since Jan. 1 this year, when Charlie first got the diagnosis.
“I know that if (the tumor) doesn’t get cut out at some point, it’s going to spread, and, once it spreads, it’s over,” he said. That weighs on him.
And it weighs on the rest of the Higbee family, too.
“We grew up in Idaho. We’ve worked for everything we’ve had, worked through problems, never sought help for anything. Anything we’ve faced, we’ve worked on our own. We found a way to get a job and earn money if we needed it or fixed financial or emotional problems mostly by ourselves,” Charlie said. “But this was one thing that was really hard.”
Particularly hard because of how it was hitting the kids.
“I didn’t expect to feel as tense as I did,” said Hunter about his father’s diagnosis. “Like, for a few months after we found out, I just felt tense all the time. Like at school and stuff, I couldn’t concentrate.”
With encouragement from health care providers, the Higbees decided to enroll in a counseling program at Saint Alphonsus designed specifically for families going through cancer. It’s called CLIMB, which stands for Children’s Lives Include Moments of Bravery.
A program for the whole family
“CLIMB really talks about helping kids understand, become educated and learning to cope with the different feelings that come up when a loved one has cancer,” said Caroline Collins, a social worker with Saint Al’s Cancer Care Center.
The program, which runs three times a year (in the fall, winter and summer) consists of six 90-minute sessions over the course of six consecutive weeks. At each session, the kids are broken into groups determined by age. Then counselors guide the children through a discussion on a feeling such as happiness, sadness, anger and confusion.
Participants get a chance to work through their feelings using art projects and crafts. At the end of each session, there’s a family-style dinner with everyone in that session’s program.
The objectives of the program are to help children and families understand cancer, but also to normalize the complicated — and sometimes ugly — feelings associated with coping with cancer.
Families work through this program together so that they can learn about this type of coping as a unit.
Ethan, who said he was confounded by the concept of cancer, was reassured when the CLIMB team took him and other participants on a tour through the hospital, where he got to learn about the different forms of cancer treatment.
“We got to radiate Scooby Doo,” he said gleefully.
Unity amidst chaos
The Higbees have made sacrifices throughout this year.
Benton, who is gearing up for college soon, had to put off driver’s education courses twice, Charlie said. All the children have taken new chores. Though the family made an effort to do fun stuff this summer — fishing, camping, two trips to Lagoon — they’ve had to put off trips that involve more planning.
They’re used to stability, structure and at least a semblance of certainty. Cancer throws that balance off.
The Higbees, who oriented their life around structure, were faced with unavoidable chaos and uncertainty. But getting to know other families dealing with the same issue through CLIMB has helped.
Benton admitted he was scared when he found out his dad had cancer, but he didn’t want to let on.
“When I had a question, I didn’t really want to talk about it very much, especially at first,” he said. “I just felt like other people have their own problems, I should deal with my own. One of the things that helped me most with CLIMB was just being able to talk about it. ... They encouraged talking about it as a family, so I thought that was good, too.”
“It opened up a lot of conversation,” she said. “Conversation that would start here and that could continue at home.”
It’s not clear how long Charlie’s treatment could take or which treatments could be most effective. It’s not clear whether treatment will get easier or harder in the months to come. It’s not clear when Charlie could finally get the tumor removed. So the family seeks clarity within the strength of their support systems: each other, church and their community.
“Anytime you go through a trial you learn from it, and you realize how strong you really are,” Allison said. “You quickly realize how amazing people are.”
How to get help
If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with cancer (or any chronic or life-threatening illness for that matter), counseling can help you and your loved ones get your footing.
CLIMB at Saint Alphonsus is a program focused on children who have a family member with cancer, and you can register or learn more about the program by calling 367-7785 or by visiting saintalphonsus.org/documents/boise/cancer-climb.pdf.
There are also many other diverse counseling and support services through St. Alphonsus, which you can learn more about at saintalphonsus.org/cancer-support.
At St. Luke’s, patients and their loved ones can also get individual or family counseling, go to art and healing support groups, get nutrition counseling, spiritual care through the hospital’s Mountain State Tumor Institute supportive oncology programs. Visit stlukesonline.org/health-services/specialties/supportive-oncology-at-st-lukes-msti for information. Patients who have just completed their cancer care also can get counseling and support services, such as through St. Luke’s program “Survivorship,” which you can learn more about online or by calling 706-7286.
Cancer “never feels simple or easy to the person who has it and it forces you into awareness into your own mortality, and it does that for the patient and the family members,” said Michele Betts, manager for social work at the Mountain State Tumor Institute at St. Luke’s.
Every family and every cancer struggle is unique, she said. But, what remains consistent is that cancer is a hurdle, not just for the individual, but for their support network as well.
Families, even nontraditional families, have a certain balance to them built in. When one member of the family gets cancer, it can throw the family’s entire dynamic out of whack.
Social workers who focus on helping families through cancer target a couple things: They provide educational resources, so that everyone can have a basic understanding of what’s happening, and then they work to normalize the feelings you might go through amid this type of family crisis.