Supporting Siblings of Children with Childhood Cancer   

Supporting Siblings of Children with Childhood Cancer

abby and alexa sibling support program

Having a family member with cancer is tough. There are so many questions and fears, it is difficult for adults to wrap their heads around. To help with the emotional needs of families with brothers and sisters of children undergoing medical treatment, Tackle Kids Cancer, a philanthropic initiative of Hackensack Meridian Health Foundation that raises critical funds for pediatric cancer and patient programs, and Hackensack Meridian Children’s Health at Joseph M. Sanzari Children’s Hospital developed the Sibling Support Program. 

The program, funded by the generosity of Sandra and Joshua Abrams, Fighting Children’s Cancer Foundation and Tommy Strong Foundation, is managed through the Children’s Hospital’s Child Life department and includes one-on-one and group therapy, including bereavement groups and organized recreational outings. 

When Abby, then 8-years-old, learned her older sister, Ella, had cancer, she was understandably confused and concerned. “In the beginning it was very hard for Abby to understand how Ella got sick,” says Marla, Abby and Ella’s mother. “When the Child Life department suggested Abby participate in the Sibling Support Program, I thought that (the Child Life Specialist) could explain things better than we could.”

At first, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Abby participated in virtual group programs called Sib Shops, and met with Alexa Perillo, a Creative Arts Therapist at the Children’s Hospital one-on-one through Zoom.

“Abby and Alexa bonded immediately,” says Marla. “Alexa made her feel special and more involved in Ella’s care. This was especially true when Ella was inpatient.”

Because COVID-19 restrictions have lessened, Abby and Alexa are now able to meet weekly at the hospital. While Abby is with Alexa, Ella spends time with her own Child Life Specialist. According to Marla, these simultaneous appointments help the sisters find a balance.

“Throughout Ella’s treatment, the girls have been jealous of each other in different ways,” says Marla. “The Sibling Support Program allows them to be on a level field. They each have something special of their own.”

Alexa works with children using different art mediums. “Art therapy provides an outlet for siblings to work through and process a variety of feelings associated with their sibling's illness, such as fear, jealousy, anger and guilt,” says Alexa. “Our program helps siblings establish a personal connection to the hospital where they can freely ask questions and connect with other brothers and sisters of pediatric oncology patients.”

As for Abby, she enjoys her time with Alexa. “I love doing art projects with her,” says Abby. “And she always has answers for my questions.”

The sibling support program is a fully philanthropically funded initiative. Sibling relationships can be emotionally powerful and critically important, especially in childhood. When one child undergoes a challenging medical emergency or illness, it has a profound impact on their siblings. We are grateful for the generous funding received to implement the Sibling Support Program to meet the emotional needs of brothers and sisters of children undergoing medical treatment.

With only 4% of the National Cancer Institute's budget being dedicated to childhood cancer, donor impact is crucial for research and support programs. We are beyond grateful for the incredible donations from Sandra and Joshua Abrams, Fighting Children’s Cancer Foundation and Tommy Strong Foundation to develop and implement this program for our youngest patients and their families. As this September’s Childhood Cancer Awareness Month comes to a close, we thank everyone who supports Hackensack Meridian Children’s Health and Tackle Kids Cancer.

To learn more about how you can support Tackle Kids Cancer, please contact Amy Glazer, executive director, Children’s Health, at

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