Stories of Hope
Kids With Cancer Tell The World About Courage And Hope
Article date: September 17, 2002
Each [child] has in his or her soul the essence of truth — pure, honest, and undiluted by adulthood. Their truth has no room for negotiation. It is simple and infinite, and it is their gift to us.
The Book Angels & Monsters Inspires With Profound Truths
Childhood is a time of limitless possibilities. And old age is the time of wisdom. But for children who face the monster of cancer, their lives are fast-forwarded into profound wisdom.
Not only do children with cancer have hand-to-hand combat with the limits of life, they face it with unflinching, raw truth and courage that humble their parents and caregivers. For them, life is hard-won yet full of incredible hope, and is to be lived to the fullest.
We have much to learn from these children.
That's what art therapist, Lisa Murray, formerly from Children's Healthcare of Atlanta at Egleston, believed as she worked to help children with cancer to release their feelings through drawings. And what photographer Billy Howard thought when he was called upon to take pictures of cancer patients from the same hospital.
Just A Regular Kid — With Cancer
Cancer gives a sudden, life-changing impact where the world is never again quite the same. For children with cancer, this affects their families, their siblings, their whole world, including their world of imagination and play.
Murray found that in their struggle, kids would tell her constantly, "I'm just a regular kid, I just want to play, to go to school, to go outside… I just happen to have cancer."
She was moved and inspired by their sheer will to survive and overcome. Even though some of the images they drew were stark, some were full of hope. The children were facing the disease head on. She was seeing some powerful images in their artwork.
"What courage it takes to do that," said Murray. "What I was seeing was so meaningful, I kept thinking, if [only] the world could see this. If others could see and hear what I'm humbled to work with and graced to see, and to have the opportunity to witness what I was witnessing."
Howard, in capturing the spirit of these children through photography, also felt the innocent and wise lessons they had to teach.
"Many have found a path — through imagination — to a wisdom that confronts our greatest fears with charity, humor, and affection," said Howard. So when Murray came to him with the idea of collaborating on an exhibit and making a book of their artwork and images, he readily agreed.
What Would You Tell The World About Cancer?
Murray selected 25 children aged 13 months to 18 years. She asked the four-year-olds and up, "If you could tell the world what it is like to have cancer, what would you say, what would you draw?" For two- to three-year olds, she asked, "What do you want to tell people about yourself?" And for the youngest, she just took their handprints. "It's such a human expression, 'Here's my mark,' " said Murray.
She then asked them about their pictures, and wrote down exactly what they said. This gave the artwork a powerful voice. Coupled with Howard's photographs of the children, the three forms of expression leave both a permanent record and lasting impression with the viewer.
"The kids wanted to tell the world. They wanted to shout it from the rooftops," said Murray.
As a therapist, Murray doesn't bias the drawing process or give them the impression that it's right or wrong. Whatever they draw is unconditionally acceptable. She just asks very open-ended questions about their work, giving them permission to talk about it.
"Adults freely talk to each other, because that's our preferred mode of communication, verbal," said Murray. "But children play, they draw, and that's the natural language of children. That's why art therapy is so wonderful."
If she were to ask what it's like having cancer, the child would be very limited in being able to talk about it, Murray said. But if she asks for a drawing, "It's non-threatening to talk about the drawing, like a third person almost, and the child will go on and on about the drawing," she said.
Art Exhibit Evolves Into A Book
An exhibit of the artwork and photographs was first held at the Marcia Wood Gallery in Atlanta in 1994. Three of the children died before the work was shown. The two teens, Katie and David, knew they were dying, and wanted to leave something of themselves behind. They wanted to be remembered.
Now, nearly nine years later, the exhibit has turned into a book, Angels & Monsters, and has become a testament to hope. Of the 25 children, 17 have survived. Two are mothers with children of their own; several are in high school and college; one has become an award-winning poet; and one is a firefighter. Many are choosing professions to help others.
Jeremiah was age 13 when he drew his picture, "Having cancer is about being all alone and lost in the desert." His road to recovery was a long one. First diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), at age three, his treatments stopped around age seven, then he relapsed when he was 12 and finished treatment two years later. Living in the country, he had to travel two hours for treatment. He was fortunate to live in a supportive family and small, close-knit community.
Now 21, a firefighter and emergency medical technician, he rides either a fire engine or an ambulance to help others. He also trains schoolchildren in fire safety and prevention.
"We see a lot of tragedy, but we get to help a lot of people, and that's a good thing," said Jeremiah. "One of the things I like about it is I'm now working in the same community where I grew up, and all the people who helped me when I was younger with cancer, I'm able to return the favor now."
He wants cancer patients to know that even though the treatment is hard and feels like it's never going to end, "Don't give up. Just don't give up. Hang in there and have hope."
Jessica S., Psychology Major
Jessica S. was 11 when she experienced four blows within a few months that most people don’t have in a full lifetime. First, in November 1993, she was diagnosed with osteogenic sarcoma (bone cancer). Three months later, her father died suddenly of a brain aneurysm. Three weeks after that she had one of her legs amputated due to her disease. The end of that same month a tornado destroyed her family's house while they were away in Atlanta for her treatment.
Her picture of two friends' hands reaching out towards each other show her radiant spirit and the strength of support. "Sometimes I feel like this experience will never end. But I know it will. Having my friends makes me want to keep on going. Friends are forever," reads the caption.
Now 19, Jessica is a junior in college studying psychology and pursuing a career in helping others through counseling.
"What she discovered through all her tragedies was not bitterness or anger, but a value and richness in friendship," said Howard. "Instead of taking the road to despair, she came through with a beautiful attitude about life. It knocks you out. She's going to have a lot to offer the field of psychology."
For people who are dealing with cancer themselves or have children with cancer, this book shows the other side of the tunnel — a full life in which to live out their dreams. Even for those who don't have cancer, but are struggling to thrive, the children in Angels & Monsters give the courage of grabbing the present and turning towards the future, of not looking back.
"Each [child] has in his or her soul the essence of truth — pure, honest, and undiluted by adulthood," said Howard. "Their truth has no room for negotiation. It is simple and infinite, and it is their gift to us."