Karate Kids Combat Cancer

Most days, the waiting area at Comprehensive Cancer Centers of Nevada’s pediatric oncology center is a bit like detention.

Quiet, uneventful, a little tense.

This is no ordinary weekday though. It’s tae kwon do Friday.

That means self-pity and those often unpronounceable diseases are forgotten, and this small waiting area is turned into a miniature martial arts studio for young cancer and hematology patients and their siblings.

"It’s great," said Brandon Reyes, 12, who forgot to bring his white belt from home and borrowed one of the instructor’s black belts to hold his uniform together.

"I’m going to get my own black belt,” Brandon said. "This is something I’ve always wanted to do but never got a chance. Now I can.”

But like the other 15 children who show up for the tae kwon do session, he must first master a series of self-defense moves to move up to orange belt status, said Robin Dillow, one of the tae kwon do instructors. Dillow and her husband, Travis, own Karate For Kids/ATA in Henderson. Through donations from the academy, any child in Southern Nevada who suffers from cancer or a blood disorder can train for free in tae kwon do.

The Dillows became involved with the pediatric cancer center through Dr. Ronald Kline, a pediatric oncologist and hematologist. Kline’s thinking was, since tae kwon do helped his two children with their self-confidence, it could be comforting to sick children.

Classes are available to all pediatric cancer and hematology patients in Southern Nevada, including children who are not patients of Comprehensive Cancer Centers of Nevada, Kline said. He advertises the classes with posters in Sunrise Children’s Hospital as well as in local pediatric cancer magazines.

Beginner classes are held in six-week intervals at Comprehensive Cancer of Nevada’s pediatric cancer center along Maryland Parkway. Children can take the upper level classes at any of the ATA academies throughout the valley, Dillow said.

The first class at Comprehensive Cancer Center of Nevada was held last fall.

A lot of young patients probably had never considered participating in tae kwon do, Robin Dillow said. Maybe their parents couldn’t afford it, or they didn’t think they were capable

"Some of the parents, when we first started, would ask, ‘Do you really think they can do this?”’ she said. "Absolutely they can. This gives them that little sense of believing in themselves. The biggest thing is that they do gain confidence right away and they get comfortable with structure.”

Delym Ingles, whose daughter Katherine, 11, suffers from a rheumatoid problem, called tae kwon do Fridays a way to relax without having to think about what’s happening in the other rooms at the center. Because there are no pediatric rheumatologists in Nevada, Katherine’s physician is flown in from Southern California to treat her here.

Ingles said Katherine had always shown interest in karate but the family couldn’t afford it. When Ingles noticed a poster highlighting the class inside the cancer center, Katherine was quickly signed up.

Tae kwon do is a martial art and combat sport originating from Korea. It involves swift kicks and arm movements and teaches students to embrace discipline and respect others. It also requires students to control their emotions, something Nicole James says has helped her autistic son, Shawn.

Shawn, 7, attends classes with his brother Cameron, 10, and sister Brittany Meehan, 14.

The three siblings share a rare blood disorder with their mother and receive treatment at Comprehensive Cancer Centers.

"He’s high functioning, but also a little hyper,” James said about Shawn. "This has really been a way to get him under control.”

During one of the self-defense drills, Shawn was singled out. Dillow grabbed his thumb. Shawn was to make a motion, unlock his finger, then scream ”get away from me.”

Like the rest of his compatriots, Shawn pried his thumb away but forgot those four words.

"What are you supposed to say, Shawn,” Dillow asked.

Shawn looked around, a bit puzzled, then mumbled, "Get way for me.”

James, taking photos from a corner of the room, smiled as her son was congratulated for his accomplishment.

Kline, who often takes time out of his schedule to look in on the tae kwon do classes, said he doesn’t want children to think of the facility as just a place where they receive treatment. He, the other physicians and the staff, want kids to have a positive outlook on life.

"These instructors, they’ve been incredible in terms of always stressing the positive. This positive reinforcement really helps when you’re dealing with cancer as a child, or any disease,” Kline said.

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