Pediatric Transplant Patients Fight Cancer as Karate Kids

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Kids Kicking Cancer Ben w Espositios

Ben Carsen, center, says karate with Cathy and Joe Esposito “gave me a great reason to get up and get my whole body moving, which in turn made me feel better.”

Jessica Madsen wasn’t sure if her daughter, Addy, was ready for karate, until the 4-year-old got the chance to take free lessons in the most surprising place:

Her hospital room.

Addy and other stem cell transplant recipients at Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center are offered free martial arts coaching during their inpatient recovery through an innovative program called Kids Kicking Cancer. Married black belt instructors Joe and Cathy Esposito visit the pediatric transplant unit at Boston Children’s Hospital every other Saturday, letting patients observe and try various kicks, punches, and blocks. In addition to safe workouts tailored to their age and health restrictions – body-to-body contact is prohibited, and moves can be performed from bed – the students learn breathing techniques to better manage the fear and pain of treatment.

More than 30 patients and their visiting siblings have taken lessons since the program was first piloted at Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s last September. Instruction is currently limited to transplant recipients, who caregivers feel can especially benefit from the sessions.

“Due to their weakened immune systems, transplant patients need to be isolated from other kids and can’t go to the many group programs we run,” says Mary Malley, MS, CCLS, a child life specialist in Hematology/Oncology who is overseeing the program with her Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s colleague, Community Resource Coordinator Abby Brown. “This offers them fun, healthy, social interaction and a chance to become more empowered against their disease.”

Kids Kicking Cancer was founded in 1999 just outside Detroit, Michigan, by Elimelech Goldberg, an orthodox rabbi and first-degree black belt in Choi Kwang Do. After he and his wife, Ruthie, lost their 2-year-old daughter, Sara, to leukemia, “Rabbi G” discovered that the same techniques used to withstand pain in martial arts could help children with cancer. The program is now offered to more than 2,600 pediatric patients annually throughout the United States as well as in Canada, Israel and Italy.

Caregivers can already see the benefit at Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s. Each Thursday before the Espositos visit, child life specialists gauge interest. There are plenty of repeat participants.

“The kids have something to look forward to, and techniques to deal with difficult aspects of treatment like dressing changes and taking pills,” says Megan Lurvey, RN, a nurse on the stem cell transplant unit. Brown credits the Espositos with being “kind while focusing on improving the hospital stay of each patient they work with – providing them with the tools to help them cope and be more at peace.”

For Addy, karate training allows her to deal with scary procedures and medications. “She lifts up her arms, breathes in, brings them down, breathes out, and then goes for it,” says Addy’s mother, Jessica. “It’s made a tremendous difference.”

Ben Carsen, 21, a pediatric patient who has had two transplants in the past two years, says the lessons “gave me a great reason to get up and get my whole body moving, which in turn made me feel better.” He looks forward to hitting punching bags and blocks for real.

For his instructors, who also offer free lessons to outpatients at Esposito’s Karate Fitness Center in Newton, the experience has been eye-opening. Sensei Cathy Esposito says it’s allowed her to appreciate the spirituality of martial arts in a new way, and made her a better teacher.

Her husband has been similarly moved.

“For 40 years, I’ve trained gifted athletes with dreams of being world champions, but none have had opponents as tough as what these kids are dealing with,” says Grandmaster Joe Esposito. “It’s been very rewarding to work with them.”

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