A Martial Arts Therapy Program Helps to Empower Young Cancer Patients

    • October 16, 2015

Originally posted: May25, 2015
Last updated: October 16, 2015

Position at time of the grant: Founder and National Director, Kids Kicking Cancer; Southfield, Mich.

Current position: Same as above

In 2004, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation named Rabbi Elimelech Goldberg an RWJF Community Health Leader for creating Kids Kicking Cancer, a program that uses martial arts therapy to empower young cancer patients and help them manage their pain.

The problem. Children fighting cancer or any major disease endure pain and discomfort, not only from the disease but also from medical procedures used to fight these conditions. Could martial arts—which teaches breathing and focusing techniques—help children control their pain and increase their sense of personal power?

For Rabbi Goldberg, it was personal. Growing up, Elimelech Goldberg was one of the shorter kids in his Bronx, N.Y., neighborhood. To compensate, he took up martial arts. “The key, to me, was learning how to take control of any given situation, learning how to use your own intuition,” he recalls. He dabbled in martial arts throughout his time at Yeshiva University in New York City, where he graduated summa cum laude with a degree in political science, and then obtained semicha, or ordination, as a rabbi in 1980.

Goldberg then moved with his family to Los Angeles to teach Talmud and bible studies at Yeshiva University of Los Angeles. While in Los Angeles, his first child, Sara Basya, was diagnosed with leukemia. She died in 1981 at the age of two.

Sara’s death “sensitized me to the possibility of extraordinary pain,” he says, and her courage was something he never forgot. “My daughter would pat me on the back and say, ‘It’s okay, Abba (meaning Daddy). I love you.’ She would go into the clinic and tell the five-year-old children, ‘Don’t cry.’ So clearly, with that type of soul that had a wisdom and strength, we had to spread this light.”

After being named rabbi at a synagogue in Southfield, Mich., Goldberg moved to the Midwest, where he and his wife raised two children and he continued martial arts. “I needed an outlet, and I’m not a runner or interested in racquetball,” he says. In 1990, he accepted a summer position as director of Camp Simcha, a New York-based summer camp for children with chronic diseases. There, his unique perspectives on children with diseases and his interests in martial arts would intersect.

“I met a five-year old from Texas having his port accessed for chemo, and he was screaming in pain,” Goldberg recalls. “Nothing distracted him from it, and two nurses had to hold him down while another attempted to inject him with pain medication. I told everyone to stop, and asked for five minutes with the child. They obliged, and when I was alone with him, I asked him if he wanted to learn some karate.

“Pain is a message, you see, and you can learn how to exhale that pain, and block it out, and inhale an amazing chi using techniques of martial arts,” he says. “This boy was so entranced by what I was teaching him that, 20 minutes later, he asked the nurse if she had taken out his needle yet. She had, minutes before he asked. I realized I had something there.”

Starting Kids Kicking Cancer. In 1999, two years after receiving his black belt in Choi Kwang Do, Goldberg founded Kids Kicking Cancer in his hometown of Southfield. In the beginning, Goldberg was the only staff member.

Working with children age 3 and older in hospitals and outpatient settings, Kids Kicking Cancer provides free martial arts classes and uniforms. Training begins with simple breathing exercises, which help children focus on happy memories and let go of negative feelings. Children are then taught relaxation, meditation, and empowerment techniques that help them “push away the message of pain and see themselves as victors, not victims.”

The program also provides counseling and end-of-life bereavement support for children and their family members. At special ceremonies, held in small intensive care rooms or large auditoriums packed with family and friends, terminally ill children receive a black belt embroidered with their name and the words “Master Teacher.”

“They really are teaching the world. Every child knows they have a purpose in their lives,” says Goldberg, known affectionately as “Rabbi G” to all at Kids Kicking Cancer.

“Our mantra is Power, Peace, Purpose. Through martial arts, the kids find their inner power; the focused breathing techniques bring them peace; and through teaching others they find great purpose,” says Rabbi Goldberg.

After he lectured on the concept and the program at Wayne State University, the university’s medical school invited Goldberg to join its pediatrics department. A clinical assistant professor since 2001, Goldberg regularly lectures about stress, the mind-body connection and non-pharmacological pain management.

Becoming a Community Health Leader. For his work developing this program, in 2004 Rabbi Goldberg was named a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Community Health Leader. The cash award of $125,000 enabled him to leave his synagogue to devote himself full time to the new program. RWJF funding, the largest donation up to that point, “allowed me to hire a program director and really focus on structure and creating more written materials,” Goldberg says.

“More important than that, though, is that the RWJF honor was a door opener,” he says. “I don’t hesitate to put that in any of my materials. To me, it’s more important than the initial grant. You never know what is the key element [for getting additional funding], but having the highest award in community health is sterling.”

A personal, life-long mission continues. Through classes and one-on-one-support, Kids Kicking Cancer has helped more than 5,000 children and their families over the last 15 years. And a recent scientific study, conducted by Goldberg and his colleagues at Wayne State University School of Medicine, has confirmed the effectiveness of the program.

“Martial arts can provide a useful modality to decrease pain in childhood cancer,” states the abstract in the November 15, 2013, issue of Blood, the official journal of the American Society of Hematology. “This can improve patient compliance with respect to medical and surgical management thus reducing disease morbidity and healthcare costs.”

By 2015, Kids Kicking Cancer had a staff of nine and had spread from Southfield, Mich., to stateside programs in Boston, California, Florida, and New York and overseas in Italy, Israel, and Canada. The global program now reaches out to any child in pain or discomfort, not just those with cancer. For example, the program now works with children who have sickle cell anemia, asthma, and obesity, conditions for which martial arts can be a helpful empowerment tool.

In December 2014, Goldberg was named one of the Top 10 CNN Heroes, which honors “everyday people changing the world.” And in January 2015, Goldberg published a book about his experiences, A Perfect God Created an Imperfect World Perfectly: 30 Life Lessons from Kids Kicking Cancer.

With the memory of his daughter still driving his efforts, Goldberg is delighted that some of the very first children in the program who survived childhood cancer are now program instructors. “I was always hopeful that this could be something that could translate in a big way,” he says of Kids Kicking Cancer. “We have been blessed along the route.”

Postscript. Goldberg remains in his position with the organization. He has recently started an experimental program of Skyping with children in other countries, including Great Britain, India, and South Africa.

RWJF perspective. The Foundation recognized the first 10 RWJF Community Health Leaders in 1993—unsung and inspiring individuals who work in their communities, often among the most disenfranchised populations, to address some of the nation’s most intractable health care problems. The last round of leaders was chosen in the fall of 2012. The program closed at the end of 2014. For more information on the program see the Special Report.

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2013 study in Blood: Participating in martial arts helped young cancer patients control their pain.