BEING diagnosed with an illness like cancer or diabetes as a child is a life-changing experience. Not only does it inevitably have an impact on their physical health but often the longer-lasting impact on their mental health can be just as difficult to deal with.
In 2021, 9-year-old Venus Hinds from Newhaven was diagnosed with an optic pathway glioma, a tumour situation between the back of her eyes and the front of her brain, which has taken away the vision in one eye. Treatment involves Venus undergoing 85 weeks of chemotherapy in order to shrink, and hopefully remove, the tumour.
And understandably this treatment has an enormous impact on Venus’s life; her experiences at school, her relationships with her friends and of course how she manages her feelings around her illness.
Venus’ Dad Rob explained:
“Since we found out about Venus’ diagnosis it has really affected her mental health as she’s missed quite a lot of time at school, and she wasn’t with her friends. She also knew something was very different in the house as we were being really cautious about how we talked about her illness around her.”
Finding a place where young people managing life-changing conditions like this can talk about how they are feeling, meet people with similar experiences and have some fun, can really help. This is why Rockinghorse Children’s Charity is fundraising to help children like Venus.
Janella Merritt, Head of Fundraising at Rockinghorse explains more:
“Children who are poorly can often feel very isolated from their peers. They inevitably have to spend time in hospital being treated which means they are away from their friends and their normal life. And even back at school they can feel different because of what they are going through. All of this can make living with a condition even harder for them.
“Our aim is to offer spaces where these children aren’t defined by their illness, where they can meet other young people who are going through similar things and help them feel like their lives aren’t just defined by their illness.”
With their current ’55 for 55’ campaign, celebrating the charity’s 55th Anniversary year, the charity is raising money for projects including art therapy sessions, sea swimming courses and woodland wellbeing days which aim to address this issue.
In a site surrounded by nature, the woodland wellbeing days offer children the chance to play games, light fires and create art using the natural materials around them. They are run by Charlotte Savins, a psychotherapist at the Royal Alexandra Children’s Hospital, and are offered to children at the hospital with long-term medical conditions.
The aim is that they help to build self-esteem, promote emotional resilience and give children a fun day out that helps build their confidence.
“Children and young people with long term conditions are more vulnerable to experiencing mental health issues such as anxiety, depression and low self-esteem, alongside feeling isolated. They are having to manage above and beyond what their peer group have to deal with, so these days are really important.”
Rob heard about the Woodland Wellbeing days from Young People vs Cancer, and he felt that Venus might benefit from a day outside, away from the everyday issues that she and her family are dealing with.
But the experience led to a change that Rob wasn’t expecting:
“After coming to a couple of sessions Venus’ language about her illness changed. She seemed to have more awareness and understanding of what her situation was and would refer to her diagnosis and treatment in a less traumatized way.
“This really helped us all feel more comfortable talking about what was going on because even though Venus is going through challenges, parents like us are also going through the challenges that a diagnosis like this can have.
“And you never know exactly how your child is until they can accept their illness and start opening up and talking about it, which is exactly what these sessions helped her do. It would have been absolutely amazing if we had found these sessions earlier on in her treatment.”
Venus is now 63 weeks into her treatment and things are much more stable. She has been able to take up some other new activities that keep her busy when she must miss school including learning Spanish and playing the flute.
“As parents, Michelle and I are still finding ways to manage our own stresses but it’s helpful that we know how to manage most of the side effects that Venus experiences from her treatment now. And it’s great that she has things like the woodland wellbeing days to help her and hope more people will donate so she will be able to go along to more of these woodland wellbeing days in the future.”
As Venus herself said:
“The days are really nice if you feel like you’re the only one who has an illness because you can meet other children who have them too and it’s really nice because you get to make new friends.”
If you would like to support Rockinghorse to help more children like Venus, just go to their website at: www.rockinghorse.org.uk to find out more about the ’55 for 55’ campaign and donate.