September may evoke feelings of elation for parents eager to get their children back to the classroom, and dread among kids saying goodbye to the lazy days of summer. But for children and teens diagnosed with cancer, returning to school each year marks an important milestone, and one to be celebrated.
Staff at the Stephen D. Hassenfeld Children’s Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders agree. That’s why each August, the Hassenfeld Center hosts a Back to School Blast. All current and former patients of any age are invited to attend, as well as their siblings. “We recognize how a cancer or blood disorder diagnosis impacts the entire family,” explained Lita Anglin, Family Health Librarian at the Hassenfeld Center and the NYU Clinical Cancer Center, who coordinates the annual Back to School Blast with the center’s psychosocial services staff. “Siblings are often the ‘unsung heroes’ during treatment. So we encourage them to attend as well.”
Ms. Anglin created the event with Harlan Saroken, a volunteer who serves on the Hassenfeld Committee. “We thought about having an event that would celebrate the return to school and give families a little bit of help,” said Ms. Anglin. Each year, Ms. Saroken secures donations of school supplies for the children (contributed by ofﬁce supply company W.B. Mason), and she and her husband, Brian, donate backpacks as well.
The Back to School Blast features educational and health-related activities for patients and their siblings. Past events have included support groups and workshops for parents, as well as fun science experiments. The day usually features New York City Fire Department ofﬁcials teaching about ﬁre safety, plus talks by the Hassenfeld Center wellness coordinator about healthy habits and physical activity for the school year.
At last year’s event on August 16, the sixth annual gathering, participants could enjoy a trivia game, learn about collage making (and receive a family museum pass) from staff of the Museum of Modern Art, and get up to speed on proper tooth-brushing techniques (thanks to instruction by residents from the NYU College of Dentistry). Some children were able to slip away to have their blood drawn for analysis — part of the routine procedures done during cancer care — saving them from having to return for another appointment.
The event also included a display about healthy breakfast choices. Helping to dole out puffed millet and corn at the breakfast table was Kahron Savage, 13. Kahron grew so tall during his nearly two-year absence from school to treat T-cell leukemia that few classmates recognized him when he returned to eighth grade last year.
A big kid now, with a quick smile, Kahron is enjoying a fresh start at Grand Street Campus, a public high school in Brooklyn. He looks forward to playing basketball and hopes to play football, once his Mediport is removed. “I am ready for the New York Regents tests and everything,” said Kahron, who selected a new red backpack ﬁlled with donated supplies. “I am proud of myself for getting through everything I did to get myself better.”
Noelia Lara, 19, has an idea of how Kahron feels. She had spent her quinceañera — the Latin American celebration of a girl’s 15th birthday — in the hospital, newly diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Her ﬁrst Back to School Blast was nine months later, even though at the time, school for her entailed a tutor coming to her Queens apartment to teach her 10th grade studies.
“Having cancer really accelerated my maturity,” Noelia asserted. “I focused on my health and doing everything I could to get better, instead of on my friends and on what I was missing. But it’s still hard. You feel alone.” Healthy today, Noelia is studying at LaGuardia Community College, working toward her dream of becoming a child psychologist for young patients with cancer.
“Here, we never say, ‘I know how you feel,’ because we don’t know,” said Dolli Holland, LCSW, a senior social worker at the Hassenfeld Center who staffed the reception table at the Back to School Blast. “But you,” she said to Noelia, “You will be able to say that.”