Kids Give Cancer a Karate Chop

Rob Brockman, A84, helps bring martial arts program to pediatric oncology patients at the Floating Hospital

Two adults show a karate move to a young patient at a hospital

Young cancer patients don’t have too much control over their health, but studies have found that practicing martial arts can help alleviate the pain associated with their disease. An organization known as Kids Kicking Cancer has been promoting that concept at medical centers around the world for almost twenty years, and, driven by a Tufts alumnus, a karate program for pediatric oncology patients has recently been launched at the Floating Hospital for Children, a Tufts School of Medicine teaching hospital.

The power of Kids Kicking Cancer lies in more than learning punches or blocks, as much fun as those may be. It’s the mind-body techniques of meditation, breathing, and focus—an essential part of martial arts practice—that lets the children confront and conquer their pain, emphasized Rob Brockman, A84, the Boston program coordinator for the volunteer group.

“We let these kids know, before they ever learn a technique, that they are powerful martial artists,” Brockman said. “They are breathing in the light, and blowing out the darkness. They are letting pain know you do not have to listen to it.”

Kids Kicking Cancer has its genesis in Detroit, where it was the brainchild of Elimelech Goldberg, a rabbi and martial arts enthusiast who lost his young daughter to leukemia. It got its start in the Boston area in 2015. Boston Children’s Hospital began to refer patients to off-site classes at Esposito’s Karate Fitness Center in Newton, Massachusetts.

It’s high five after learning a martial arts move for Dariel. Photo: Alonso NicholsIt’s high five after learning a martial arts move for Dariel. Photo: Alonso Nichols
From an initial two youngsters, the number of patients and their siblings involved in Kids Kicking Cancer in New England is now more than 1,000 students, according to Brockman. The program now includes free outpatient and inpatient classes at Children’s, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston Medical Center, and Floating. The children include those suffering from other illness besides cancer that require pain-management skills.

Cancer has touched several people in Brockman’s life. Those experiences, and his love of working with children, led him to Kids Kicking Cancer. He graduated from Tufts with a degree in human factors engineering and worked as a rehabilitation engineer, building products and equipment for children with disabilities.

In 1994, his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, and she died in 2005. During her illness, Brockman married, had two children of his own, and switched careers, becoming a summer camp director.

He was further inspired by close family friends whose six-year-old son had died of cancer. Brockman went on to volunteer at the Ronald McDonald House in Brookline, which provides accommodations for families with seriously ill children. And, as a devotee of martial arts, he developed his skillset in Taekwondo, earning a black belt in 2013.

Cathy Esposito and Rob Brockman teach five-year-old Dalton karate techniques during a Kids Kicking Cancer exercise session at the Floating Hospital. Photo: Alonso NicholsCathy Esposito and Rob Brockman teach five-year-old Dalton karate techniques during a Kids Kicking Cancer exercise session at the Floating Hospital. Photo: Alonso Nichols
Then in 2014, Brockman came across a Boston Globe column about Kids Kicking Cancer and learned that Goldberg would be visiting Boston. This brought it all together for Brockman: working with children and cancer patients, and his love of martial arts. He joined forces with Goldberg, karate instructors Joe Esposito, Cathy Esposito, and Tony Mastromatteo, and a core group of partners in philanthropy, including fellow Tufts alum Cliff Rucker, A85.

“The Kids Kicking Cancer program is an amazing, innovative program that is absolutely beneficial to our patients,” said Megan Beaupre, a clinical social worker in the Floating’s pediatric hematology/oncology division. “What I love most is how the program teaches our patients about the fundamentals of deep breathing, relaxation, distraction, and how to regain control of their bodies—critical skills when dealing with a life threatening or chronic illness.”

A study by a team of doctors and researchers, published in the journal Pediatric Health, Medicine and Therapeutics in 2016, supports the idea that using the movement and meditative elements of martial arts can indeed improve pain management in children suffering from malignancies.

The lessons imparted to the young patients through Kids Kicking Cancer can benefit others, too, said Brockman, who balances his work schedule—now at Kronos—with the hospital visits and weekend martial arts classes.

“I’ve learned so much about applying the principles of martial arts to fighting pain,” he said. Helping establish the Kids Kicking Cancer program at the Floating was only fitting, Brockman added. “Here I am, 30 years after graduation, back in the very place where I was first inspired to work with kids,” he said.

Helene Ragovin can be reached at  

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