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Creative T-Shirt Design is a Game-Changer for Children with Cancer


By Tori Callahan

Pink T-Shirt

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Reading Time: 4 minutes

When you’re a kid, life is about play dates and games and favorite snacks. But when you are diagnosed with cancer and need chemotherapy, your concerns change. You start to think about the way it feels to wear a medical gown in a hospital, and suddenly, you’re aware of things that other children are not.

“I’m embarrassed to show my belly.” “I’m tired of feeling cold air on my back.”

This is what Luz Quiroga, Patient Services and Transportation Coordinator for the Emilio Nares Foundation (ENF), kept hearing from her son Martin during his endless rounds of chemotherapy. The problem wasn’t just that Martin was tired from the chemo; the problem was the process of lifting up his shirt to receive the medicine. For Quiroga, the answer wasn’t a cure. Or more fundraising. Or more research. It definitely wasn’t less treatment. It was a t-shirt.

Each year, 1,500 children and adolescents are diagnosed with cancer in California, according to the California Department of Health. Rady Children’s Hospital-San Diego is a the only hospital in the San Diego area dedicated exclusively to pediatric healthcare and the region’s only designated pediatric trauma center. In 2012, Rady Children’s saw more than 200 new pediatric cancer patients, most in need of chemotherapy treatment.

“Receiving chemotherapy is stressful and dramatic, particularly for children between the ages of 3-7,” said Richard Nares, co-Founder and Executive Director of ENF, a San Diego-based nonprofit that exists to assist families with children who are battling childhood cancer. Even teenagers, who may have gained weight from steroids in their treatment, feel uncomfortable and embarrassed to show their body.

“Children are used to a routine,” said Nares. “Their diagnoses [and the chemo needed to treat them] pull them away from it.” Heidi Cramer, Development Officer of the nonprofit, added that the act of lifting a child’s shirt to give them chemo is so disruptive to their routine that it becomes the worst part of their day and causes most to “scream bloody murder.”

For Martin, lifting his shirt became unbearable. During one particular treatment session, he begged his mom to “just cut it.” When she finally did, he complained because the shirt was his favorite.

To receive chemotherapy, a permanent IV called a catheter is placed under the skin into a large blood vessel of the upper chest. That way, a child can receive the treatment without having to always use a vein in the arm. The catheter remains under the skin until all the cancer treatment is completed.

Unsure of what to do, Luz and her sister-in-law Corina sat down to brainstorm. Knowing that other children experienced the same struggles, they came up with the idea to sew the shirt back together with Velcro snaps near the shoulder. The “Loving Tabs” Shirt was born.

The “Loving Tabs” Shirt

With a grant from The Bravo Foundation, the idea for creating a shirt designed to facilitate easy access for medication to children with cancer became a reality. ENF began by testing out different styles and getting input from physicians, patients and families. Over time, they transformed the Velcro to buttons and decided against the sometimes-too-harsh feel of cotton.

According to Cramer, the latest version of the Shirt is the best yet. Now made of 100% bamboo, the Shirt is anti-bacterial, hypoallergenic and breathable. The tabs on the shoulder are strategically designed to easily open and allow full exposure of the top of the torso. They’re also available in a variety of colors such as black, nautical blue and orchid pink.

Progress Through Partnerships

Realizing the implications that this Shirt could have for the pediatric cancer community, ENF worked to build as many collaborations with like-minded organizations as possible. “Our mindset was that we are all trying to do good work in the community we love and we all need the help from outside resources. Collaboration seemed natural to the success of fulfilling our unique mission, and we hoped it would help our collaborators’ missions as well,” said Cramer.

To test the satisfaction and usefulness of the Shirt, ENF distributed 200 of them to pediatric cancer patients and began collaborating closely with Rady Children’s and Children’s Hospital of Orange County to survey physicians, nurses, family members, and patients.

For financial and strategic purposes, ENF sought out additional partnerships with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation as a source for money, gap intelligence as a source for market intelligence and analytics, and LEAD San Diego as a source for a smart distribution plan.

Reciprocating their call for collaboration, LEAD San Diego saw great potential in the Shirt and selected the program as one of six LEAD San Diego Leadership Action Team (LAT) Initiatives, the service-learning component of LEAD’s flagship program, IMPACT San Diego.

The LAT team working on the Loving Tabs project is in the process of creating an actionable marketing plan that begins locally with the broader goal of providing national awareness and distribution of the product, said Carole Ravago, Marketing & Alumni Relations Manager for LEAD. The plan includes an assessment of the product, its story, targeted patient segments and distribution channels, and means to solicit grants and underwriting support to acquire the Shirts for distribution to patients.

The collaboration ensures that no stone is left unturned in the distribution of the Shirts. “The LAT for ENF is creating a financial model to represent the impact of the strategies included in the marketing plan. The team will incorporate direct costs of production, sales and marketing efforts and other expenses to provide a fiscal road map for ENF,” explained Ravago.

“The LEAD team has given amazing insight into how to create a realistic and plausible marketing plan so the Shirt will be distributed properly,” said Cramer. “They’ve also helped us understand how we can allocate the funds to come back to the Emilio Nares Foundation so we can continue to operate our valuable and imperative programs for low-income, underprivileged families whose children are battling cancer in San Diego.”

Coming to You—Soon!

For Nares, the Shirt has the potential to be an absolute game-changer for families and medical staff that know first-hand the struggles with children and chemotherapy. The results from initial surveys and verbal feedback have been extremely positive.

“Kids are calling the Shirt, their ‘uniform’ for when they go into treatment,” said Cramer. “They’re are able to provide a sense of normalcy for the patient and they finally don’t feel that their privacy is invaded. Anything that can be done to alleviate such discomfort is crucial.”

While future distribution depends on the outcome of current survey results and marketing strategies, ENF’s end goal is to make the Loving Tabs Shirt available in hospitals across the country for every child to use.

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