Kicking cancer: Kids learn how to breathe their pain away
Innovative martial arts programme is giving new hope to children with the dreaded disease
Hayden, 12, has made friends in the Kids Kicking Cancer programme at Red Cross Memorial Children’s Hospital, but, he says calmly, some have passed on. He adds: “I am not afraid any more after becoming a martial artist.”
For about six months, martial arts therapy with a focus on breathing has been offered to children with cancer in four public hospitals to help reduce their pain and empower them.
These children must often come alone for weekly treatment because their parents work or can’t afford the transport costs to join them.
Bouncy Ferdi, 7, is lucky to have his mother, Faith Makholwa, by his side. She says his learning about breathing and karate has reduced his pain.
“He teaches his [healthy] twin at home about breathing in the light and out the darkness and pain,” says Makholwa, who lives on the outskirts of Cape Town and brings him for chemotherapy on Mondays.
On a busy Monday morning in Johannesburg, Moses Sebopa makes quite an entrance as he walks into the Charlotte Maxeke Hospital, dressed in a full black karate suit.
His visits to the paediatric oncology ward create a stir among the young patients waiting for lumbar punctures and intravenous chemotherapy – some rush off to get into karate suits while others wait to watch the class in fascination.
The Gauteng coordinator and a fifth dan black belt, Sebopa isn’t teaching regular self-defence. “It is about taking in the light, and that would represent all the good things that you would want in your body. When we breathe out, we say we breathe all the darkness out of the body. That is pain, anxiety, fear.”
US-based founder Rabbi G (Elimelech Goldberg) developed this programme after losing his two-year-old daughter to leukaemia in 1999.
Professor Alan Davidson, head of paediatric oncology at Red Cross, said new evidence published this year showed vigorous exercise was associated with increased survival among children with cancer.
“Along comes a rabbi with a plan to shape bodies and minds,” he said, his voice breaking with emotion. “I have seen a small child show her mother how to breathe and calm her.”
Every child is taught three words: power, peace and purpose, and their purpose is to teach the world about breathing and healing.
Dr Gita Naidu, who heads the paediatric oncology unit at Chris Hani Baragwanath Academic Hospital in Soweto, said her training in the sciences made her sceptical of this type of “support medicine” in the early days, but she could see it was making a huge difference.
Dr Craig Nossel, a director of the programme, said he had seen that these support programmes were a critical part of treating any disease.
The programme will be expanded next month to the Steve Biko Hospital and George Mukhare Hospital in Tshwane.
Volunteer Ilze van der Merwe, who runs the Western Cape programme at Tygerberg and Red Cross hospitals, said: “It is about getting to the hearts and minds of the kids. For all children, martial arts can help with stress, fear, anger and frustration.”
Rabbi G is fond of cracking dad jokes, like one he shared on a visit to Joburg and Cape Town hospitals this week. “If you do breathing exercises every day for 120 years, you will live a really long life.”
Pain is a message to the brain, and if someone is afraid, angry or sad, “the actual pain message goes up”, he said. “This programme is a way to address pain [and complement] medication ... after only four interventions the brain can change.”
Radiologist and seventh dan karate champion, Dr Shane Dorfman chooses volunteers for the programme at Charlotte Maxeke. “The studies are there – from Harvard to Johns Hopkins University – regular deep breathing has a profound impact on reversing the damage that stress has on the heart and the immune system,” he said.
“The thing that struck me about meditation is the proven structural change in the brain. It reverses ageing in a way.”