Pickles Group: Supporting Kids Impacted by Parental Cancer With Cassy Horton, Executive Director

In this interview from the recent 2023 American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) Annual Meeting, Oncology Data Advisor speaks with Cassy Horton, Executive Director of Pickles Group, a nonprofit organization supporting the social and emotional wellbeing of children whose parents have cancer.

Oncology Data Advisor: Welcome to Oncology Data Advisor. Today we’re here at the ASCO Annual Meeting, and I’m joined by Cassy Horton. Thanks so much for coming on today.

Cassy Horton: I’m very happy to be here.

Oncology Data Advisor: Would you like to introduce yourself and share how you became involved with Pickles Group?

Cassy Horton: Sure. So my name’s Cassy Horton. I’m the Executive Director of Pickles Group. I come from a nonprofit and youth services background, so I’ve really built a career working with kids who are going through challenging experiences. And right now, I’m really proud to be working with Pickles Group. We are one of the few nonprofits across the country that is specifically focused on supporting the social-emotional wellbeing of kids whose parents have cancer.

Oncology Data Advisor: For some background, what are some of the unique challenges that these kids face?

Cassy Horton: Absolutely. We really see a diversity of experiences and challenges, but also opportunities that kids face when a parent is diagnosed with cancer. That range of experiences really depends on age, their developmental stage, and what a family is experiencing outside of that cancer diagnosis, but also the diagnosis itself. It’s really different to face a parent’s diagnosis where there might be what feels like a clear path towards treatment and hopefully a cure versus, say, some of the cancers like metastatic breast cancer, for example, where you might have a mom who’s living with cancer for an extended period of time, and it’s not something that’s necessarily going away. So that lived experience is really different from family to family. But we do know that there are common things we can do to support kids no matter what that experience is like at home. We really focus on those research-based things that are supportive, healing, and protective to kids, regardless of what that experience is.

Oncology Data Advisor: Great. So I’m excited to learn more about the work that Pickles Group does. How did it come about being started?

Cassy Horton: Yes. So we are here at ASCO in Chicago, and we’re founded out of the lived experience of three families from the Chicago area who really connected with each other when they had at least one parent, or in one instance two parents, who were diagnosed with cancer. All three of these families had kids at home who were of elementary and middle school age. And when the families got together—they were neighbors—their friends had put them in touch with each other. The first thing that they really recognized was, yes, of course, as a patient, as a parent, as a caregiver, they were having a hard time, but also their kids were having a really hard time. And there wasn’t any support that they could really find and latch onto that was meeting that need.

So, that group of families started working with the woman who is now our Chief Clinical Program Officer, Kelsey Mora. She has a background as both a therapist and a child life specialist, coming out of the hospital system here in Chicago. Kelsey started facilitating a lot of different supports, resources, and essentially a group for the kids that was transformative for those kids. That really ended up being our original pilot. And once those families saw how powerful that experience was for their kids and their families, wanted to think about, “Are there other families that could benefit from this?” And that really sprouted into Pickles Group and our nonprofit.

Oncology Data Advisor: That’s amazing. So, what kind of programs and resources does it provide?

Cassy Horton: There’s a lot of research out there actually, which is great, about what works for kids, like I said, whose parents have cancer. So, we really lean back into that. What we know from the research is that three things are really beneficial for those kids: one, actually providing them with information about cancer, about what’s going on: “Mom has a surgery coming up. This is a scan. This is what’s happening.” Talking about those things is really good for kids. And that’s also probably one of the hardest things for families to do. We hear all the time from oncology nurses and social workers that the big question they get from patients who have kids at home is, “What am I going to tell my kids?” It’s just a huge weight on the family. So, we really provide a lot of support around that. We do webinars. We put out written resources that families can reference. That’s kind of a starting point.

And then the other things that we know are really good for kids are helping them develop coping skills—”What am I feeling? What can I do about those feelings? What are healthy things I can do to deal with my feelings?” and then connecting them with peers who get what they’re going through. We facilitate both in-person and virtual programs for kids to connect them with other kids who share this lived experience, but also to work through and process their feelings. Just being in a space where you know you’re not the only kid who’s going through this is really powerful. We serve kids in Chicago in person, but with our virtual program, we serve kids all over the country. We’ve got families from Maine, from Puerto Rico, who have this transformative experience getting to connect with other kids who get them.

Oncology Data Advisor: Great. That’s some really incredible work. So, how can people become involved with Pickles Group or learn more about it?

Cassy Horton: The biggest thing probably for this audience is to connect with us. We can send support kits and booklets for families. But to make referrals, we’re always looking for ways to connect with new families. It’s really easy for a family never to get to learn that there’s support there for them and their kids. Online on our website, there’s information about making referrals. Oncology nurses, social workers, and doctors can order our support kits, hand them out, and hand out flyers to families. That’s a huge thing for us. We’re also always looking for volunteers. We actually train skilled volunteers who have experience working with kids to facilitate the program. If folks have worked with kids and want to get involved, that’s a great way. We’ve got lots of opportunities for volunteers. And we’re always looking for financial contributions and donations. Folks can reach out and we can kind of talk them through the different ways that they can support. But awareness is a big one.

Oncology Data Advisor: Absolutely, yes. One last question I’ll ask you is, the theme of ASCO this year is partnering with patients. What is your perspective on this from a patient advocate perspective, as far as partnering with both patients and their families?

Cassy Horton: Absolutely. So, this is really simple. It’s something that we’re always reminding ourselves—just listening, listening with the intent to learn, having curiosity, and coming in not necessarily assuming that you know what the right answer is going to be. We’re in the interesting position of really wanting to listen to our kids. And sometimes, what we hear from the kids is even different than what we hear from the parents and the patients. I think it’s really just centering the voice of the stakeholders and the folks that you’re looking to serve, and being open to changing things or trying things in a different way that you wouldn’t have necessarily thought of. There’s so much value in the perspective that we can get from our families, from the folks that we’re working with directly. We can lift up that voice, but also if we’re not listening, we can’t champion and really meet the needs of the folks we’re serving.

Oncology Data Advisor: Absolutely. Well, it’s so great to hear about Pickles Group. Thank you so much for stopping by today to talk to me about it.

Cassy Horton: Sure, no problem. Thank you. I appreciate it.

About Ms. Horton

Cassy Horton is the Executive Director of Pickles Group, a national 501(c)3 nonprofit dedicated to providing peer-to-peer social and emotional support to children whose parents have cancer. She has dedicated her career to working with kids and with nonprofit groups.

For More Information

Pickles Group (2023). Kids supporting kids impacted by parental cancer. Available at: picklesgroup.org

Transcript edited for clarity. Any views expressed above are the speaker’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Oncology Data Advisor.

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