Category Archives: Literary Narratives

Block Out Cancer: Helping Children Tell Their Stories

C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital has a campaign for childhood cancer awareness month: Block Out Cancer. Block Out Cancer is “a rallying cry for people from all walks of life to come together to support the fight against children’s cancers.”

I’m honored that Mott has featured this blog post I wrote about my project:

My name is Trisha, and I help children tell their stories to Block Out Cancer.

mott-blog-BOC-thumb

 

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Grace: Tracing Childhood Cancer Through Treatment and Beyond

Melinda Marchiano and I share a number of similarities. We are writers who come to understand the world and our own experiences through language. We are dancers who have unearthed a passion that we will pursue for the rest of our lives. We are aspiring pediatric oncologists, eager and excited to pursue medical careers. But unlike Melinda, I’ve only encountered cancer from “the outside of the needles and sickness” (Greer 52).

graceI met Marchiano by reading her memoir, Grace: A  Child’s Intimate Journey through Cancer and Recovery. Marchiano writes her story in journal entries of sorts with interspersed snapshots of milestone memories and powerful quotes. She reflects deeply on her cancer experiences, sharing her thoughts on the diagnostic label of cancer, the paradoxical effects of chemotherapy, and the tensions of mind and body through illness. Her conversational and confessional writing reveals her sense of humor and personality.

Marchiano’s comprehensive memoir seems to capture the essence and nuances of her experience with childhood cancer. Rather than attempt to summarize these, here are just some of many excerpts that were particularly compelling to me:

“[Chemotherapy’s] a sort of ‘chemical feeling,’ like battery acid that races through your veins. I felt terrible, and as I write this now, recalling how sick I was, nausea and dizziness have returned to me. I only now noticed that, feeling so passionate about my writing, I am virtually reexperiencing it. Chemo may eventually leave your body, but it always stays with you” (50).

“I longed for the feeling of dancing, the feeling of freedom, the feeling of the studio air filling my lungs, and the feeling of my heart beating as one with the music. I decided I would work hard. I would do it…I would dance again. The fear of hard work did not exist within me. Becoming accustomed to pain, I now didn’t care one bit how badly anything hurt” (119).

“I noticed that, hey, maybe I did have a story. But if, indeed, I did, I didn’t really think that anyone would want to hear it” (140).

“When I wrote my speech, I questioned how much I should share. Pondering it for quite some time, I decided to lay it all on the line, to give it to them straight. Cancer does exist. My suffering was real, and I needed to acknowledge that” (224).

“Cancer kids need just as much help after treatment as during. We’re like giant walking wounds, with each touch stinging and painful. Only time can make the wound scab over and begin to heal. But during that vulnerable time, we need a Band-aid” (272).

Marchiano now advocates strongly for childhood cancer research. In sharing her story, she has found that “my cancer had a meaning– a purpose. It was doing what I thought it was not capable of doing — giving” (196).

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Very Much Better: A Survivor Reflects and Relives Childhood Cancer

“Cancer was everywhere. There was no moment, thought, idea, ache or pain, burst of energy or breathless moment that didn’t change, or wasn’t changed by my cancer– there was always a piece of it with me, somewhere, in something.” (67)

very much betterJason Greer’s memoir Very Much Better holds within it a piece of his cancer. Diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma on the brink of adolescence, Greer leaves behind his hometown in Montana for the Children’s Hospital in Seattle, Washington. But he finds strength in support from his loved ones, family and friends . For Greer, “faith…is the crying from inside the soul to plunge into living”; his beliefs energize him throughout his journey (117).

Greer smoothly melds his retroactive retelling of the past with “a look back” from his present point of view. We become familiar with Greer as an 11-year old boy and as a  grown-up adult, the during and the after of cancer, and we witness how the disease matures him hastily. He intersperses medical terms such as “pre-op” or “outpatient,” denoting their foreign nature by quotation marks (10;14). With witty chapter titles like “The Art of Throwing Up” and “The Cancer Patient’s Guide to Duct Tape,” personality and a sense of humor shine through each adventure (xi).

What struck me most about Greer’s memoir was his powerful grasp of his experiences. Particularly eloquent was his ability to capture one of the most emotional aspects of coping with childhood cancer: losing others to the disease. The deaths of Erik, Chad, and Jesse are each heart-wrenching in their own right, and Greer illuminates their important place within his own cancer experiences.

“Cancer threatened each of us, for a time was inescapable, and seemed to be everywhere. But as we sat in the company of each other’s encouragement, we surrounded the disease — and we defied it, every part of it” (83).

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Notes Left Behind: Journaling about a daughter’s cancer

“She is simple. She is our Elena” (x). A grown-up, 5-year-old girl who loved hearts, dresses, and the color pink. Her life was colored by her experiences with DIPG, a rare form of brain cancer.

notesNotes Left Behind is a collection of journal entries written by Elena’s parents, Brooke and Keith Desserich. What began as a preservation of memories to share with Elena’s sister Gracie quickly became more meaningful to both the Desseriches and  all those who cared about Elena. 

The Desseriches chronicle their letters by the date and the number of days since diagnosis, the day Elena was given an estimate of 135 days to live. Brooke and Keith take turns writing entries that coalesce to provide a more holistic, parental view of caring for a child with cancer and her sibling.

While Elena wrote many notes to her loved ones, “this book too is a note from Elena, messages from a little girl who taught our family so much about life” (xiv). Elena’s sweet, sincere personality shines through the eyes of her parents, who share with us her experiences in losing her voice,  gaining weight from steroids, and wanting nothing more than to be normal once more.

In the face of cancer, questions emerge about the daunting uncertainties and the forgotten nuances. Keith grapples with these question marks and calls out our band-aids, noting that “cures don’t come on toy shelves and they don’t have tags” (64). He reminds us that these material objects are powerful yet insufficient when lives are still at stake. It’s refreshing to remember that at the root of each childhood cancer is a need for a cure.

Inspired by their personal experiences with the incurable, the Desseriches started the organization The Cure Starts Now. With an emphasis on finding a cure for brain cancer, this organization believes that a cure for all cancers can be found in this elusive disease. Elena has touched the lives of those around her and more.

She has left behind more than notes.

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Angels & Monsters: A child’s eye view of cancer

Godzilla stands next to a purple hospital, breathing out engulfing flames of fire. He is burning out cancer.

This drawing was one of many to inspire art therapist Lisa Murray to share the work of children with cancer. Photographer Billy Howard is also dedicated to these children, capturing their personalities through a camera lens. Together, Murray and Howard set out to bridge their representations of these children. Murray let children illustrate what it feels like to have cancer through the medium of their choice, then wrote out their explanations. Howard photographed each child individually, honoring their personal journeys with cancer.

Angels & MonstersGodzilla vs. Cancer was an art gallery exhibition in 1994, sharing the illustrations, explanations, and photographs of 25 children with a larger audience outside the Pediatric Oncology ward. Eight years later in 2002, 17 of the children had survived. These creations along with biographies and a list of resources were compiled to create the book Angels & Monsters: A child’s eye view of cancer.

Cancer brings out fear: tears, pain, sickness, confusion, isolation, and band-aids. But it also brings out friendships, faith, perspective, and love. While each artistic piece offers insight into each child’s perspective, black and white photographs showcase each child’s self. On a swing, with a superhero cape, by a window, curled in a bed. Each work of art and the rationale behind it is compelling, each photograph and each child beautiful.

The authors reflect honestly with simple yet profound understandings of these children and their journeys. I loved the phrase that Jeff Foxworthy uses in the forward to describe these children: “old souls in little bodies” (viii). These individuals exhibit the precision of language as they carve out childhood cancer. They invite us to into “a special world. No artifice exists there. The human spirit holds sway with complete honesty and great dignity” (6).

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Where We Stand with Childhood and Young Adult Cancer

Let’s start with some of the basic facts about childhood cancer and young adult cancer, excerpted below.

  • “Cancer is the #1 disease killer of children”
  • “Cancer is the second leading cause of death exceeded only by accidents”
  • “80% of children diagnosed with cancer are in developing countries.”
  • “50 years ago, less than 10% of children survived cancer.” Now, more than 80% do.
  • “The late effects of treatment – which are often life-threatening – mean that ‘childhood cancer is forever.'”

These facts are illustrated by this infographic by The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. I think that these five points highlight the key issues surrounding the childhood cancer phenomenon. It remains a serious concern for the lives of children around the world. We’ve come a long way in understanding pediatric cancer, but there remains much for us to learn about causes, treatments, cures, and longterm effects. Childhood Cancer Awareness Month aims to illuminate these insufficiencies so that we can recognize them and do something.

Gold ribbon

Niki K; BY-SA.

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Tweeting and Grieving

140 characters has never sounded like enough to me.

But for Scott Simon, Twitter has become a concise space for reflection and reverence of his mother’s last hours in the ICU.

When I first heard about this spectacle, I was slightly appalled about the idea of invading the intimate and private space of the ICU with social media. But this article approached these tweets from a different perspective, suggesting instead that this embodies a more modern form of mourning. “The brevity and sequentiality of Twitter eerily evokes the reality of time, allowing us to witness an event” (O’Rourke).

As fascinating as this correlation between time and social media is, I believe that this statement is more eery to me than what it proposes. Perhaps it is my personal aversion from Twitter, but I disagree:  Twitter may give us a peek, but it does not enable our entire observation.

These tweets do not allow us to observe her death and its surroundings. We do not hear her breaths cease while the ICU continues to beep. We do not watch  stillness set in.

What I found to be unsettling was not the tweets themselves but rather the act of tweeting. It seems as though Twitter served as an outlet and a means of communication for Simon during his mother’s time in the ICU, a coping mechanism of sorts. I respect Simon’s choice to share his ICU experiences through Twitter. But even in 30 minutes after his mother’s death, Simon sent 3 tweets. Which means that he spent some time, maybe just a minute or so, looking at a screen and typing rather than being totally present with the loved ones around him.

It is inevitable that social media has become a space to share not only the joys and triumphs of life but also its trials and fumblings. But I wonder if this is the inherent trap to social media that we must recognize- it can become an obligation to others that draws us from the people physically around us. And with all the publicity that this happening has attracted, I was surprised to see how much of the attention has been centered around Scott Simon.

I guess I just wish that at the moment of her death, there had been more attention drawn to the person at the center of these tweets: his mother, Patricia Lyon Simon Newman.

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