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Monkey Business opens up cancer experience
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Through a string activity, the kids of Monkey Business learn how their feelings about cancer connect them together. - photo by Photo Contributed

When Norma Fernandez, 43, heard the diagnosis that the lump was breast cancer, her mind swirled with words like chemotherapy, aggressive form, mastectomy and prognosis. Among the din ringing through Fernandez’s mind was one resounding question — how was she going to explain this frightening and beastly disease to her children?

As it turned out, Fernandez’s explanation would involve a lot of Monkey Business.

Monkey Business is an Emanuel Medical Center support group for children who have a family member diagnosed with cancer. The support group is open to children and teens ages 5 to 17 years. A parent or guardian must attend as well and participate in the adult sessions.

Filled with projects, games and plenty of silliness, Monkey Business is above all else about learning to share the myriad of feelings and fears children experience when a loved one is diagnosed with cancer.

“The program really helps kids and teens understand cancer and process their feelings while someone they love goes through treatment,” said Brittany Cotta, the social worker at Emanuel Cancer Center facilitating the program. “It gives them coping skills for the big issues and avenues for day to day living with a cancer diagnosis. Family communication is the big message.”

For Fernandez, Monkey Business proved to be a beacon of hope for her children as they struggled with the uncertainty of her health.

“My diagnosis was a shock to the family,” Fernandez said. “It broke it. It’s now slowly coming back together and Monkey Business has been a big part of that.”

Every session of Monkey Business includes a pizza dinner from Little Caesars and family talk time — an activity that often is forgotten when a parent is fighting cancer, said Monkey Business facilitator Nancy Daley.

“Dinner goes by the wayside and with it, the family discussions,” Daley said. “But this is such an important time for families to be communicating with each other. Monkey Business gets them all together again and doesn’t allow the cancer to take over the family unit.”

After dinner the children, led by Daley, engage in a variety of activities and games that serves a larger purpose than bringing a smile to their faces.

“The hands-on activities help the children and teens express their feelings,” Daley said. “It provides a foundation to cope positively with the ups and downs that this illness can bring by providing sensory activities. The goal is to provide each child the coping skills they need to ease feelings of sadness, anger, aloneness and fear.

“These kids become best friends because they share this connection,” Daley continued. “After a session of two you can see a twinkle in their eyes that shines through all the ugliness of cancer.”

The sessions are equally beneficial to the adults, Fernandez said.

“It was helpful for me too,” she said. “I was going off and crying by myself. I didn’t realize it at first, but I needed to be able to express how I was feeling and not hide it. Monkey Business gave me a place to do that with people who understood. It’s an amazing program.”

The first session of Monkey Business proved so successful that it has been expanded to operate year-round with each session lasting eight weeks. The group meets from 4 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. alternating Mondays every month except December and June. The group is free, but preregistration is required. Call 664-5044 to register.