“Exchanging War Stories”

Today at volunteering, two girls were doing Beads of Hope . I have always been intrigued by this activity, where children string beads that represent each monumental moment in the course of their treatment. From blood draws to surgeries, good days to going home days, these beads materialize the ups and downs of coping with cancer.

Although this activity is often done with one patient at a time, today there were two girls who had both endured many similar procedures. One was older, but the other was more outgoing and talkative. It was fascinating to observe how these hope beads served as a catalyst, encouraging these children to reflect on their past procedures and to tell their stories. Each child would try to outdo the other, emphasizing why their experiences were more admirable.

“It’s like they’re exchanging war stories,” noted one parent.

And it struck me just how right he was; that’s exactly what it was like. And I remembered that was how the study of illness narratives originated, since it was derived from the study of narratives of Holocaust survivors.

What is it about illness, especially those like cancer, that is comparable to war? I guess it is the struggle to hold on to life in the face of an enemy’s threat. But participation in war is a decision (I guess drafting suggests that’s not necessarily true), whereas illness like cancer can be an uncontrollable, unpredictable, coincidental occurrence. Battle and war imagery is a common metaphor for illness; what are the shortcomings and implications of such associations?

Beads of Hope is heart-wrenching for me to watch every time. The kids get excited as their necklaces grow longer and longer, and their challenges become more and more unfathomable. I know that these kids do not choose to face their circumstances, but nonetheless, their endurance never ceases to amaze and inspire me.

I am excited that my research will give these children an opportunity to share their war stories with others, to let their voice be heard.

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