Tag Archives: Illness Narrative

How to “Make-A-Wish”: Stephen’s Day as a Michigan Football Recruit

When people think about the Make-A-Wish Foundation, most people think about dying children fulfilling their last wish to go to Disneyworld. But Make-A-Wish Foundation is about so, so much more.

As a volunteer wish granter for the Make-A-Wish Foundation, I’ve had the opportunity to learn more about the organization from the inside and to understand what really goes into turning a child’s wish into reality. I firmly believe that I have the best job of all- it is my responsibility to spend time with children with life-threatening conditions and help them to realize their “one, true wish.” These wishes are about more than visiting Disneyworld but rather understanding what will bring each child the greatest joy they could ever imagine.

This past week, I was inspired to hear about an incredible wish that was close to home for me: Stephen’s wish to be recruited for the University of Michigan Football Team. Like many children, he lost his ability to play football when he was diagnosed with cancer. For his wish, Stephen got to meet his favorite football player, Michigan’s football coach, and even the football team in the Big House.

The only way to appreciate the great work of the Make-A-Wish Foundation is to witness his wish for yourself:

http://frontrow.espn.go.com/2014/07/wish/

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The Fault in Our Stars: Fictionalizing the Realities of Childhood Cancer

“This is not so much an author’s note as an author’s reminder of what was printed in small type a few pages ago: This book is a work of fiction. I made it up.”

-John Green, The Fault in Our Stars

The author’s note quoted above is one of my favorite pages in John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars.

When I first heard about The Fault in Our Stars, a book about childhood cancer that was also soon-to-be a movie, my initial reactions were as follows. Surprise, that the often hidden world of childhood cancer was being so prominently featured in a bestseller. Wariness, that this book which was quickly becoming a sensation itself would similarly sensationalize the lives of those with childhood cancer.

Reading the Author’s Note both confirmed and calmed my fears. I applauded Green’s straightforward commitment to the fictionality of the novel, for it cautions the reader not to use this story to make assumptions about childhood cancer. At the same time, it made me curious about his choice to use cancer as an intriguing literary device and how he would portray this reality, however fictionalized.

I found myself scrutinizing this book, expecting it to portray cancer in some false light that would spur further misunderstandings and stereotypes. But I have to say, after reading TFIOS, I was impressed by the power of Green’s language. The adolescent perspective, at times cynical and abrasively honest, allows him to successfully make real this foreign world of cancer. From the “Cancer Perks” that accompany a diagnosis to illness-catalyzed Encouragements, I thought that the story was overall written with great precision.

Interestingly enough, this was one of the first times where I preferred the movie adaptation to the book. To me, the witty dialogue and the comic relief interspersed amongst heartfelt emotion really came to life through the camera in a way that I didn’t quite feel when reading the book. While the book sometimes felt a bit bogged down by philosophical contemplations and at other times almost too simple, the film adaptation struck a balance between both the unbearable lightness and heaviness of being (a phrase I’m borrowing from Milan Kundera’s book)

Some critics have looked down upon this work as yet another in a new genre of “sick-lit” full of terminal illness and the devastations caused by disease. This idea warrants an entire post of its own (coming soon). I am glad that the TFIOS sensation is raising awareness of childhood cancer, but I can only hope that people take Green’s Author’s Note to heart.

“Neither novels nor their readers benefit from attempts to divine whether any facts hide inside a story. Such efforts attach the very idea that made-up stories can matter, which is sort of the foundational assumption of our species.”

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A Dance to Zach Sobiech’s Sandcastles: Dedicated to Youth with Cancer

Because dance is one way that I express myself, I’ve been wanting to dedicate a dance to the youth with cancer that I have spent time with over the years.

When I learned about Zach Sobiech, a teenager with osteosarcoma, his incredible musical talent resonated with me: the lyrics he wrote and the songs he sang expressed his inspiring attitude amidst his experiences with cancer. With subtle undertones of cancer, his music is simple yet powerful. One of my favorite songs by Zach is Sandcastles: a melodious, heartfelt duet with Sammy Brown about a far off land “where no one gets hurt and no one dies.”

Zach died one year ago today. My hope is that my choreography and performance of a dance to Sandcastles, speaks for itself.

Dedicated to youth with cancer.

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A Summer Solstice of Sorts

Although it’s been awhile, I’ve been thinking a lot about this website over the past few weeks. Remembering where it began, reflecting on how it has evolved, and postulating about what lies in its future. What began as a somewhat objective study of illness narratives has transformed to introspectively explore my personal navigation of the genre.

This summer, for the next two months before medical school begins in August, I will be doing something else that I love: traveling. From India to Paris to Spain, I’m really excited to have the opportunity to see more of the world. I am determined to make the most of this exciting time.

My ever-growing summer reading list beckons, and my travel journal of blank pages is waiting to be filled. I hope to refrain from technology (insofar as is possible) and instead feel the pages of real books and write through my thoughts with a pen in hand.

And so, this is a disclaimer: posts may be sparse over the next several weeks. But if this ends up being the case, then I look forward to returning with a refreshed perspective, developing thoughts, and new ideas for the future.

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Excited for The Examined Life conference: Writing, Humanities, and the Art of Medicine

When I attended the WMU Medical Humanities Conference last fall, I heard about an upcoming conference called The Examined Life: Writing, Humanities, and the Art of Medicine. And now, I’m fortunate enough to not only be attending this conference but also be presenting about my childhood cancer narrative research!

The Examined Life conference explores “the links between the science of medicine and the art of writing.” This conference seems to align perfectly with my own dual interests in medicine and literature. I think that participating in this conference will help me to figure out how I can maintain and balance both passions throughout my career, and I’m looking forward to meeting others in these fields with their own insight and experience to share.

At the Examined Life conference just one week from now, I’ll be doing something a bit different. In writing my Honors English thesis over the course of this year, I realized just how crucial my methodology has been in shaping the adolescent cancer narratives that I wanted to analyze. As a result, rather than just presenting about my research, I’ll be leading a discussion forum this time. Specifically, we will be discussing the ethics inherent in my methodology and thoughts that may be sparked from encountering these narratives. I’m curious, nervous, and excited to see what comes out of this discussion. I believe that these conversations will give me a lot to think about as I look towards further developing my honors thesis.

Here’s the abstract for my discussion forum:

Chronicling Childhood Cancer: Illuminating the Illness Experience through Narrative

I’ve never been to Iowa! I’m excited.

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3/24/14: The day I turned in my Honors English Thesis

To be honest, this is probably the most important thing that I’ve done in my life.

My Honors English thesis

I know it sounds dramatic, but I can’t help but think that it’s true. I’ve been excited about writing a thesis since coming to college. I had no idea what it would be about, but I loved the idea of turning my own thoughts into something new. My English teacher once told me that I was a seeker; I enjoy turning to literature for answers and embracing its ambiguity. And in many ways, that is what I’ve done in my Honors English thesis.

It’s hard for me to wrap my mind around just how much of myself I’ve devoted to this research. But in many ways, this thesis is the culminating creation of my entire undergraduate education here at Michigan and more. Volunteering with pediatric oncology patients in high school initially piqued my interest; now, I’ve become dedicated to hopefully getting involved in childhood cancer as a physician. I needed to do this research: for these individuals with cancer who have had such an impact on my life but also for me, as a way of making sense of these unfathomable lives.

These final days have also been a time for remembering how fortunate I am to have so many people in my life supporting me. A close friend willingly contributed an extra set of eyes and an additional brain towards the editing process. From front to back, my mom read my entire thesis for typos. My dad morally supported me in the final stretch, and even my brother helped me to perfect the images. It’s been humbling to watch my loved ones step aside from their lives and devote their time to my own project.

Throughout the process, I’ve said that all I wanted was to be able to turn my thesis in knowing that I did everything I could and that I personally am happy with it. By my own standards, I believe that I’ve successfully accomplished this goal, and I couldn’t be more content.

If nothing else, the fact that I found myself eager to write this blog post and excited to dive into John Green’s  The Fault in Our Stars to celebrate  says something to me. I know that in studying literature, I’ve truly been doing something I love.

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Week 7: Guest Speaker- Dr. Janet R. Gilsdorf

This week, we had the pleasure of welcoming Dr. Janet R. Gilsdorf to join our class discussion. Dr. Gilsdorf is a pediatric infectious disease doctor at the University of Michigan. She is  a breast cancer survivor. She is a writer, an author of two books: Inside/Outside: A Physician’s Journey with Breast Cancer (Conversations in Medicine and Society) and Ten Days. And she took the time to speak with the students in my class.

Having a guest speaker created a different dynamic for our class discussion, one that I think made some of the concepts we had discussed more real. Conversation ranged from Dr. Gilsdorf’s experiences and role in medicine to her time as a patient to her passion for reading and writing. It was a privilege for us to have the opportunity to speak with her.

Lesson Plan Week 7

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Week 6: Meeting Cancer, the “Emperor of All Maladies”

With a day full of rain, hail, and even thunder-snow, we elected to spend classtime watching the film adaptation of Margaret Edson’s play W;t. We decided to save our discussion of Audre Lorde, Angelina Jolie, and breast cancer for the following week, where guest speaker Dr. Janet Gilsdorf was coming in to speak about her experiences as a physician and as a breast cancer patient. I had been worried about how to show excerpts of W;t and do the film justice (I think it’s an incredibly powerful work), so I was happy to be able to show it to them in its entirety.

Lesson Plan Week 6

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Week 5: Embracing Illness- (Dis)Ability in the Blogosphere

Learning about autism in an English class was one of my early experiences with the intersection of literature and medicine. This week, it was especially challenging to condense a semester’s worth of studying autism and disability studies into a 1.5 hour class period. Nevertheless, I do think that it was one of the most enlightening class discussions thus far.

There seemed to be something different about our discussion this week. Autism seemed much more relatable, and more students evoked personal experiences with autistic relatives and friends. A number of students expressed feeling that there was much more to explore about autism, and they have decided to delve deeper into autism for their final projects (which I will discuss more in a future post).

This week, I was also observed by an advisor from the Honors College. I told my students that my goal was to get her to participate in our discussion, and I’m happy to say  that we were successful! The class was very engaged; there were a number of moments where multiple students had their hands up, eager to participate.

When class was over, I left the room with a refreshed appreciation for this teaching opportunity. Each of the students (and my advisor) left with a new perspective on autism. In a world where everyone is touched by disability and/or illness in some way, I continue to believe that this kind of awareness is absolutely essential.

Lesson Plan Week 5

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Week 4: A Literal Lock-In- The Body’s Entrapment of the Mind

To mark the halfway point of my mini-course, I gave the students the opportunity to provide feedback. In particular, I was curious about what they were enjoying in the course and what changes they would like to see made in the time we had remaining. Were the readings too long or too short? Did they find class discussions to be productive and thought-provoking? Was the class meeting their hopes and expectations and, if not, were there constructive ways that it could be improved?

I was pleasantly surprised to receive overwhelmingly positive feedback. Students seemed to be content with the structure of the course- the readings were manageable,  blog post assignments straightforward, class discussions  stimulating. Many found the blog posts to be a great way to kickstart our class discussions and to get them thinking about the readings. A number of students expressed their appreciation for the multiple media we explored and particularly enjoyed watching film and video clips in class.

The only concern that was voiced by one or two students was that there was unequal participation in class discussions. As with any discussion class, I’ve observed that some individuals participate more than others, but I have also been content with the fact that each individual contributes to each class session. To some extent, disparity in engagement may be inevitable, but I’m hoping to incorporate even more small group activities and more consciously make  an effort to get everyone talking.

Lesson Plan Week 4

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