In September of 2008, Matthew and Tammy Hladun’s infant son, Will, was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer that took his life at 6 months of age. Although saying goodbye to him brought unspeakable anguish, the Ballston Lake couple were able to find a bright side to the devastating situation.
“During our time at Albany Med, everybody was so fantastic to us, and when we knew it was the end of life for Will, we decided to have him spend his last few days at the hospital, and the doctors, the nurses, the staff, really jumped through hoops and did things differently to help [our family]… And after Will passed away, we realized that every family should have that,” Tammy said.
From that realization came the Brave Will Foundation, an organization started by the Hladuns in 2009 to provide emotional support to families that include a child with a terminal illness.
The foundation donates money to Albany Medical Center’s Journeys pediatric palliative care program, which offers families with a seriously ill child emotional support and advocacy.
The foundation is also raising funds for a hospice room for children at Albany Med and has started an initiative called SOAR — Steer Onward And Remember.
“On the one-year anniversary of a child’s passing from … any long-term illness, we provide funding for the families to help them get through that day, however they see fit. We’ve done a butterfly release and a catered dinner, a tree-planting ceremony with brunch, a family day out of just fun and play,” Tammy said.
The Brave Will Foundation is not in search of a cure for the cancer that took Will’s life, but instead aspires to improve quality of life for children with terminal illnesses, and for their families.
“We can’t cure the patient, we can’t change the outcome, but we can change how the family gets through this experience, make them see the light to enjoy every moment with their child, both the healthy and unhealthy child, and long-term to really be able to have them live with no regrets,” Tammy said.
Other organizations that operate locally share a similar belief — that tending to the emotional well-being of patients and their families can provide a form of healing that conventional medicine cannot.
The Northeast New York Chapter of Make-A-Wish Foundation grants wishes to children between the ages of 21⁄2 and 18 who have a life-threatening medical condition.
“Some of it can be very simple: a child wants to go to Disney World, our single most popular wish. Kids want to meet celebrities, go to different places, go on a shopping spree or get something like a computer or bicycle,” explained marketing and communications manager Tim Riley.
Wishes granted add up to more than just fun memories.
“The wish is part of the medicine. So much depends on attitude and positive thinking. That ties into how a child reacts and deals with a life-threatening illness,” Riley explained. “What we hear from our families is they get away from the routine. It’s doctor visits, hospital visits, and here, all of a sudden, here’s something different, an opportunity for joy and excitement too.”
The American Cancer Society has two programs that seek to improve the emotional health of cancer patients.
The Look Good … Feel Better program, offered through a collaboration of the Personal Care Products Council Foundation, the ACS and the Professional Beauty Association/National Cosmetology Association, helps patients to have a positive self-image, despite the ravaging effects of cancer treatment. Each participant is given a skin care and cosmetic kit worth between $200 and $300, and professional assistance in learning how to use it.
“There was one particular patient who came who I just think captured it all so well,” said Tracy Pitcher, senior director of cancer control. “She said, ‘I’m a cancer patient. I know I have cancer. I just don’t want to look like I have cancer.’ So this program helps people do that.”
Look Good … Feel Better also offers an opportunity to connect with others on similar journeys.
“For some ladies, connecting in a support group might not be their cup of tea, but connecting with a group of women who are in a very similar place, in a program like Look Good … Feel Better, it offers comfort,” Pitcher said.
The American Cancer Society’s Hope Club of the Capital Region, formerly Gilda’s Club, offers a variety of ways for cancer patients and their families to reach out to an understanding community, including support groups, card groups, knitting groups, yoga classes and educational programs.
“Because we offer so many different things, people get to define wellness in a way that is appropriate to them, that speaks to them, and wellness might be connecting with another person in a support group or it might be taking a yoga class,” Pitcher explained.
The clubhouse, located on Penny Lane in Latham, offers an ideal atmosphere for sharing, she said.
“It’s kind of a judgment-free zone. People can really put it out there as to where they are that particular day, based on how they’re impacted by the disease, and there’s someone else here who can understand where they’re coming from,” she said.
Women with a chronic illness and female veterans suffering from post-war trauma can find healing at retreats organized by Creative Healing Connections.
“Our mission is to provide creative experiences that promote healing and growth,” said executive director Martha Pritchard Spear.
The three-day retreats the organization offers take place at Great Camp Sagamore in Raquette Lake, and at the Wiawaka Holiday House in Lake George.
“[The retreats bring] a sense of peace and an acceptance of your situation and ability to ground yourself so that you can move forward with your life, whatever challenges are next.”
WHAT: Gala to support The Brave Will Foundation
WHEN: Saturday, April 21, 7 p.m. to midnight
WHERE: The National Museum of Dance, Saratoga Springs
Info: The gala’s theme is: “Remember what it was like to be a kid.” It will feature a catered meal, open bar, live music, dancing, casino games, and raffles. Tickets, which must be purchased today, are $100. For more information, visit www.bravewill.org or call 280-1119.