"How do you explain breast cancer to your 3 1/2-year-old son?" asked Susan Cohen of Woodland Hills. "How does your spouse feel about becoming your caretaker?" These are some of the questions addressed at The Safe Spot. "The things we shared with other families [who] were on the same difficult journey as us," said Cohen, a USC professor and breast cancer survivor.
The second annual Safe Spot, a daylong camp for families coping with a cancer-stricken parent, will be held on Sunday, June 9, at the JCC Shalom Institute in Malibu. A day of workshops, seminars and entertainment, The Safe Spot cultivates open communication and healthy attitudes. "It's important to find spiritual wellness and psychological wellness in the face of physical illness. And in families where a parent is sick, this mental fitness is as crucial for loved ones as it is for the patients," said Sally Weber, The Safe Spot founder and director of community programs at Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles.
As an opportunity to explore unspoken fears amongst peers, the camp the brainchild of Weber and Valley Beth Shalom's Rabbi Ed Feinstein. "We wanted to create a place that fostered communication among family members, but also a place with Judaism at its core. We use Jewish music and spirituality to open up to others," Weber said.
A colon cancer survivor and father of three, Feinstein said he longed for a place where children learned how to survive their parents' cancer. "Kids tend to think they are the only one whose parent is sick," Feinstein said. "At The Safe Spot, they can get together with other kids in the same situation. Suddenly, they are in an environment where they can tell their parents all the things they've kept inside," added the former camp director.
"One 9-year-old boy said the gift of cancer is that his dad is home more," Weber said.
"Another son told his dad he knows he's sick, so he shouldn't be afraid to show he's in pain," Feinstein recalled.
The Safe Spot, a joint program of Jewish Family Service, The Jewish Federation and Valley Beth Shalom, addresses spousal relationships as well as parent-child ones. The children participate in art projects and long hikes with the Shalom Institute Camp staff, while their parents attend workshops with professional therapists and rabbis. "It's the first place my husband, Steve, voiced his thoughts about how normal our home life felt, even while I was getting chemo," said Cohen, a member of Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills. "The Safe Spot created an environment of deep sharing between people who were strangers beforehand, so you felt comfortable talking about these issues," added Cohen.
The Safe Spot's playful camp atmosphere provides critical support in a lighthearted environment. Robbo, whose singalong was the highlight of last year's retreat, will headline this year's event as well. "The day was fun for kids, but for the adults, too. We all laughed and sang, and knew that even with a life-threatening disease, we can still have fun," said Cohen, who proudly celebrated her 50th birthday this month.
"And it was inspiring to meet other families with small kids, to see how they found the courage to face the disease," Cohen said. "No one wants to join the cancer club, but once you become a member, you meet some incredible people, like the ones at Safe Spot" she said.
The Safe Spot, held from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., includes kosher meals and snacks. For more information call (323) 761-8800 ext. 1256.
While far from exhaustive, the following is a starting point to find cancer-oriented services.
American Cancer Society
Cedars-Sinai Comprehensive Cancer Center
(310) 423-8030 (weekdays,8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m.)
Childrens Hospital Los Angeles Childrens Center for Cancer & Blood Diseases
City of Hope
Israel Cancer Research Fund
The Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (PanCAN)
(310) 791-5214, (877) 272-6226
St. John's Hospital and Health Center
Joyce Eisenberg Keefer Breast Center
UCLA Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center
USC/Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center and
The Wellness Community at Valley Beth Shalom
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