Kicking cancer their way

Fall 2013

Kiara Szabo pulls air deep into her lungs until it looks like her tiny chest can’t expand any further.

“Then you breathe in a little more,” she says softly to Sensei Joel Ender.

They stand together in LHSC’s Children’s Hospital, in full martial arts uniforms. Ender towers above the 10-year old as he follows her instruction. Today, teacher turns student as Kiara shows him what she has learned over the past few months through the Kids Kicking Cancer program.

Like many of the patients at Children’s Hospital, Kiara’s curiosity was piqued by the senseis who have been roaming the halls of Children’s Hospital since the spring. When a child life specialist asked her if she’d like to learn martial arts as part of the Kids Kicking Cancer program, she was keen to sign up. 

Kiara is a natural – and a perfect fit for the program, as she is exactly the type of patient that it was designed to empower. Since being diagnosed with leukemia in 2011, Kiara has struggled with fatigue, irritability, pain and a compromised immune system. She's missed out on social interaction at school and has fallen behind in her studies.

“One of the greatest challenges for a child that’s been given a difficult diagnosis is that they become different from their friends. Their life is different, not fair,” says Kids Kicking Cancer Founder Rabbi Elimelech Goldberg, known affectionately as Rabbi G. “Kids Kicking Cancer really is a movement of empowerment, our mission statement is to ease the pain of sick children while empowering them to heal physically, spiritually and emotionally.”

Headquartered out of Detroit, Kids Kicking Cancer is a non-profit organization that helps children with cancer manage the stress and pain of their disease and treatments through personalized coaching, instructed by volunteer black belt martial artists. Children practice the techniques and teach them to others to help reduce stress.

Since its inception almost 15 years ago, the program has spread across the U.S. and the world – touching base in cities such as Los Angeles, Florence and Jerusalem.  However, the program was not available in a children’s hospital in Canada until a very special fundraising force – Brandon Prust – joined with Children’s Health Foundation to launch it here in London.

Prust first began visiting Children’s Hospital as a London Knight over a decade ago and the children made an incredible impact on him.

“When you see the way they go about life it’s very humbling. Just to be there and put a smile on their face is what makes you go back,” he says.

Now with the Montreal Canadiens, Prust found himself looking for a way to support London’s Children’s Hospital on a larger scale. When he heard about the Kids Kicking Cancer program, the decision to get involved was easy.

In 2012, he hosted a fundraising golf tournament under the name of his charity, Prusty4Kids. With the support of other NHL stars, Children’s Hospital staff and Children’s Health Foundation, the inaugural event raised almost $130,000 – more than enough to bring the program to London.

“We’re very proud of it,” says Prust. “You’re just trying to help out … having the status I have as a professional hockey player helps and it’s good to give back. Doing good things is important.”

Joel Ender, a local black belt martial artist, was one of the first to volunteer with the program in London. He is one of four local martial artists that made the cut through the rigorous screening process and training program that Kids Kicking Cancer and Children’s Hospital requires.

Since the start of this year, Ender has been participating in twice-weekly rounds of Children’s Hospital inpatient and outpatient clinics, where he sees four to five patients on average each visit.

Kiara would be one of the first patients to demonstrate the program’s effectiveness to Ender.

Upon arriving at Children’s Hospital for a routine treatment, Kiara’s mother Roxanne realized that she had forgotten Kiara’s EMLA cream – a topical anesthetic that numbs the skin over Kiara’s port so that she doesn’t feel pain when it is accessed with a needle.

Kiara had a choice. She could either wait the hour it would take to get the cream, apply it and have it take effect, or, she could go through the procedure without it.

Kiara opted to forgo the anesthetic. Instead, she and her mother used the techniques they had learned through Kids Kicking Cancer.

First, Roxanne walked her daughter through a relaxation technique they had learned called a body scan, and then Kiara used power breathing to reduce the pain.

“For the first time ever she made it through the port access without pain killers,” says Ender. “By using her power breathing, she got through it.”

The effectiveness of this ‘mind over matter’ technique is no trick of the imagination. When a child is empowered in their own treatment, the biological indicators of pain become less present.

“Distraction is a proven and valid methodology for managing pain or pain responses,” says Val Rousom, Director of Children’s Care at Children’s Hospital. “This purposeful breathing, mindful meditation and imagery, and thinking differently about the control one has over pain empowers children in a way that allows them to manage their own pain...this in itself is exciting.”

Since the launch, Kids Kicking Cancer continues to gather momentum. Soon, the program hopes to add off-site classes, as well as expand into additional children’s hospitals across Canada.

In addition, Prust plans to host his golf tournament every second year in hopes that it will continue to help the children and families from across Ontario who use Children’s Hospital’s services.

“You want (the children) to be stronger in the heart and in the mind and it’s going to help them and help their families, as everyone gets involved with the breathing techniques – it can be a whole family thing,” he says.

For Roxanne and Kiara, being involved in the program has had an incredible impact on both mother and child.

“Kids Kicking Cancer has helped me,” says Roxanne. “By seeing Kiara have power, peace and purpose over this horrible, horrible disease – she can breathe through the pain and take back control over her body.”

Indeed, each and every day, Kiara’s body is becoming her own again. October 25 marks a monumental milestone – her last chemotherapy treatment.

When asked what her plans are for the future, soft-spoken and thoughtful Kiara talks about the upcoming school year, her love of science and math, and, with a gentle smile states that she wants to be an oncologist.

Raising Hope for children……

At Children’s Health Foundation, raising hope is more than a slogan. It’s a philosophy that encompasses everything we do for children, youth and their families from across Southwestern Ontario and parts of Northern Ontario. 

Children’s is proud to be raising funds and hope across the continuum of children’s health care, supporting the highest quality treatments at Children’s Hospital, London Health Sciences Centre, rehabilitation at Thames Valley Children’s Centre, and innovative research at Children’s Health Research Institute.

Thanks to the incredible support of Brandon Prust and Prusty4Kids, London’s Children’s Hospital is the first in Canada to bring Kids Kicking Cancer to our young patients.  This unique program teaches stress and pain management techniques not only to cancer patients, but other children faced with chronic illnesses.  Kids Kicking Cancer is just one of the specialized paediatric programs that are funded through community support. 

Other examples of current programs funded through Children’s Health Foundation are:

  • Art therapy: creativity and expression through art to help young patients express their emotions and gain a sense of control during what can be a difficult and uncertain time. Child life: helps children and their families understand and adjust to the hospital environment – reducing the stress and anxiety of their health care journeys.
  • Eating disorders shared care: supports our regional health care teams who provide timely support for children and adolescents with mental health needs, while staying close to home.
  • Injury prevention: focuses attention on preventing injuries — the leading cause of  death in children and adolescents — through education and awareness.
  • Theraputic clown: Ollie the Clown uses humour, laughter and spontaneity to help improve families’ hospital experiences and create a positive, hopeful environment.

To learn more about how you can positively impact the health of children, youth and their families and support the Children’s Family, please visit

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From left to right, Montreal Canadiens' Brandon Prust, Kids Kicking Cancer participant Kiara Szabo and Joel Ender, Kids Kicking Cancer sensei
Kiara Szabo practices the techniques she's learned through Kids Kicking Cancer with Sensei Joel Ender
Brandon Prust (left) shares a high five with Kiara Szabo (right)