When Tammy Kaitz’s son, Dylan Crane, was diagnosed with cancer eight years ago, the two started going to meetings of the support group Teen Impact at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. Tammy had the opportunity to talk with other parents who were experiencing similar circumstances, and Crane, then 13, met a girl who had just completed treatment for the same illness.
“I used to say Teen Impact was my emotional life vest because it was really hard to stay afloat,” Kaitz said.
After six months of treatment, which included three rounds of chemotherapy and open-heart surgery, Crane’s cancer went into remission. The support of Teen Impact was what helped him overcome every obstacle, said Kaitz, who is president of the Teen Impact Affiliates board, which supports the program.
“My son used to be a very shy and insecure kid, even before he got sick,” she said. “He was a typical Jewish boy with hair all over his body. In chemo, he lost every ounce of hair, and he felt like he didn’t fit in anywhere. But at meetings, he would smile and interact. He felt like it was a place he fit in because everybody had gone through it or was going through it.”
Established in 1988 by Aura Kuperberg, the sister of Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren, Teen Impact serves cancer and blood disease patients and survivors beginning at age 8. Support groups meet twice a month at Children’s Hospital for preteens, teens, young adults, siblings and parents. Survivors who participated in the program, along with volunteer therapists, hospital staff and graduate students, facilitate the meetings.
Kuperberg, who serves as the program’s director, said there is nothing else like Teen Impact.
“It’s designed specifically for teenagers,” she said. “It’s hard enough sometimes to be a teen and be worried about exams and prom and where you’re going to go to college. A teen with cancer is now faced with chemotherapy, cancer and maybe surgery. It’s a very difficult stage of life to be faced with all these challenges.”
Kuperberg, who has a doctoral degree in social work from the University of Southern California, has been working at Children’s Hospital for 33 years. Her career there began when she was hired to run a training program to assist parents in coping with their children’s cancer diagnoses. After realizing that there was nothing specifically for teens, she decided to create Teen Impact.
“The challenges they face are so unique, and there needed to be something just for them,” Kuperberg said.
A total of 7,000 families over the past 25 years have participated in Teen Impact. According to Kuperberg, about 25 percent of its members are receiving or have received treatment at other hospitals.
In addition to meetings, the program — which relies solely on donations and grants — sponsors open mics, dinners, art and relaxation workshops, and karate and yoga lessons. There are adventure therapy retreats, where members go to ski, raft, sail and participate in other fun activities. Counselors and mentors, who were in the program before, offer guidance and assistance.
Crane, now 22, still pops in on meetings. He is healthy and wants to create sound effects for movies professionally. Reflecting back on his diagnosis in middle school and then his transition to high school, he said, “It was really rough for me. I lost a bunch of friends. But at Teen Impact, I gained a lot of friends.”
The program gave him hope by showing him how things could turn out.
“When I started going, there were many older people [in the stage] I’m in now,” he said. “They were on the leaving end of it. They had gone through it since they were in high school, and they knew exactly what issues I was dealing with. They helped me out.”
Kuperberg said that she and her co-workers — Betty Gonzalez-Morkos, clinical director of programs; Octavio Zavala, a leukemia survivor and program administrator; and licensed clinical psychologist Michael Wolkenfeld — do more than help patients cope.
“We help them survive,” she said. “Expressing feelings and not feeling alone are tremendous benefits. If someone is isolated and not able to express deeper feelings, it interferes with adjustment. It’s important to have peer support.”
The next mission for Kuperberg and her team is to reach out to teenagers undergoing bone marrow treatments, who are in complete isolation for up to three months at a time. The program, which allows these patients to tune in to meetings and talk to peers via video chat, is expected to launch in September.
All of this is important because the consequences of cancer echo long after the disease has been treated. Kaitz said that teens, who are starting a journey into young adulthood, are forever sidetracked by their illnesses.
“This is a great program to not only give teens an emotional home but a footing,” she said.
And her son will always be grateful.
“When you get sick, people make you feel like an outsider, but Teen Impact brings you in,” he said. “They are a family because they all recognize what you’re going through, and you’re not going through it alone.”
To donate or learn more about Teen Impact, visit www.CHLA.org/TEENIMPACT.