Letting the kids of cancer patients just be kids

When Pamela Becker’s husband, Jeremy Coleman, was diagnosed with stage 4 stomach cancer in 2007, she was so involved in caring for him that she was left with little energy for their three children, ages six months to six years. She turned to friends for help.

“Our friends would put all the child seats in the car and my kids would just go with them on family outings like walks or movies,” Becker, now 51, tells ISRAEL21c.

The experience of “just letting kids be kids” was so important that Becker turned her personal tragedy into social action.

Along with Coleman’s sisters, Becker started Jeremy’s Circle, the first organization in Israel to give children and teens whose parents or siblings have cancer “permission to laugh out loud and have fun.”

Pamela Becker, president and founder of Jeremy’s Circle, with two children on the program. Photo by Sara Salamon

“Despite the fact that something terrible is going on, we still need to take the time to let our children be with other children and connect with others,” says Becker.

“No one cared for the healthy children in families who also needed attention,” she explains.

By participating in activities with other children, they “no longer feel different because they have to drive their brother in a wheelchair or because their mother has to wear a wig because she has lost her hair.”

Coleman helped his wife craft a business plan for the organization in the weeks before he died in 2008. His sisters, Juliette and Naomi, and close friends have helped Becker grow Jeremy’s Circle from supporting 25 families to supporting about 700 families.

This is one way for Becker to turn her husband’s death into something positive. “We’re doing it right on Jeremy’s behalf,” she said.

A community of fun

“We want all kids in a terrible situation where they have a parent or sibling with cancer, or lose a loved one to cancer, to have a community of fun,” Becker says.

When someone in a family is sick, the focus is on the sick patient. Families are often under financial, physical and emotional stress. At events, children can get rid of the stress and sadness of their home and distance themselves from the idea that “it’s not respectful if I laugh out loud”.

For the first Hanukkah event at Jeremy’s Circle, a man offered to bring a hundred hot dogs; someone else found them a DJ. This year, the 14th consecutive Jeremy’s Circle Hanukkah event will be held at iJump in Petah Tikva.

In the past year, as Covid-19 prevented face-to-face meetings, Jeremy’s Circle organized online activities. Now the organization has a combination of online and in-person events.

A collage of Jeremy’s Circle activities. Photo courtesy of Jeremy’s Circle

The organization arranges transport and meals; in the summer they offer baseball caps and sunscreen. Thanks to donations from individuals and foundations, all activities are free for every family member.

Madelin Nahum, 50, said when she began treatment for breast cancer four years ago, she confided to a friend who was also sick that she didn’t know what to do with her daughter, Daniela, who was six at the time. Her boyfriend told her about Jeremy’s Circle. Since then, Nahum and her daughter, now 10, have been involved with Jeremy’s Circle.

“The people in Jeremy’s Circle have become my family and my friends,” says Nahum.

After her chemotherapy treatments, she and her daughter would attend Jeremy’s Circle events. Since Nahum doesn’t drive, the organization sends a taxi to pick them up and drop them off.

“When my daughter is with other children whose parents are also sick, it calms her down,” says Nahum. “And that fills my soul.”

Not impossible

When her husband was ill, Becker joined a caregiver support group. One time she took her six-year-old daughter Zoe with her. Seeing how isolated Zoe was, Becker arranged a playdate with another girl whose parent was sick.

“I remember these two girls playing together on the playground for hours,” says Becker. “This experience of meeting someone with a similar situation brought tremendous amounts of relief.”

Jeremy Coleman with daughter Zoe before his diagnosis. Photo courtesy of Pamela Becker

Despite the personal tragedy for Becker and her family, her story does have a happy ending.

In her support group, she met a man whose wife died two months before Jeremy. The couple joined their five children, all about the same age, into a new family.

“It’s a unique experience to lose a spouse and we understood each other and can almost speak in shorthand,” she says.

For kids and their families, meeting others at Jeremy’s Circle activities shows that “they’re normal and things aren’t that impossible,” Becker said. “Other people are dealing with the tragedy of cancer — but look, they’re still standing.”

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