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A survival haven for children of cancer-stricken parents

Times Staff Writer

Neal Eisler was feeling distressed.

Last year his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. Now it was in remission, but his parents were getting divorced.

“My dad isn’t talking to me at all,” complained the 18-year-old. “He went to Colorado . . . I’m stuck in the middle, and things aren’t good.”

Ten young people sitting in a circle gave him understanding nods.

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“The thing to do is make peace with both sides,” offered Grady Murphy, 20, whose mother died of cancer when he was 9 and whose brother Conner is also in the group. “Then let your instinct for survival kick in.”

That’s what he and the others say they’re doing at Kids Konnected, an Orange County-based organization providing support groups for children whose parents have cancer. Recently they poured those instincts into a book they’re selling on the Internet.

“By writing about it, I found healthier ways to cope,” Murphy said of his contribution to “Love Sick: Teens Reflect on Growing Up With a Parent Who Has Cancer.”

Learning to cope is what got the group started. In 1993, when Jon Wagner Holtz was 13, he was was told that his mother had breast cancer. The Irvine youth started a hotline for people his age, and it eventually evolved into a handful of children meeting regularly with a psychologist.

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Holtz, whose mother survived, is now a Disney World executive living in Florida. And today, Kids Konnected sponsors 20 groups -- including four in Orange County -- that have served 10,000 youngsters in more than eight states.

“The idea is for them not to feel alone,” says Lynette Wilhardt, a licensed clinical social worker who directs the Orange County program.

“Many feel that their peers don’t understand what they’re going through,” she said. “It’s a population that’s hugely ignored; their friends are talking about boyfriends and girlfriends while these kids are dealing with life and death.”

Though Kids Konnected serves children as young as 4, Wilhardt oversees a group of teens that meets twice monthly at Hoag Hospital in Newport Beach. It was from this group that the book emerged.

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“Teens tend to be reclusive,” she said, “so I encouraged them to write.” In addition to it being a valuable therapeutic exercise, she said, “they had stories to tell.”

The result is “Love Sick,” a 50-page compilation of poems, stories, essays and art.

“For the last nine years I have a felt a hole in me,” begins an essay written by Murphy accompanied by a drawing of a broken flowerpot. “It is right below my sternum and a bit to the left . . . I became aware of this hole after the death of my mother.”

Sarah Selski, whose father died of pancreatic cancer when she was 16, describes the moments after a fateful call from his doctor that his passing was imminent.

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“We headed to the hospital as fast as we could . . . " she relates. “I was scared, and I knew deep down I had to tell him the one thing I did not want to say. I sat in the hospital room, holding my dad’s hand and told him that I loved him forever and that I would be OK if he was ready to die.”

Profits from the book, published by a donor and available for $15.95 at KidsKonnected.org, will help support the group’s work.

“Mostly,” Wilhardt says, “we want to get it into the hands of every teen who’s going through this. We hope they will find some insight and comfort.”


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