Leukemia Survivor Turns Gaming Hobby Into Charity

photo of John Gillick dressed as a character for Castles and Chemo event

During his outpatient treatments for leukemia in Montgomery, Alabama, John Gillick suffered with nausea, fatigue, and hair loss. But once a week, he was able to stop thinking about cancer and sickness for several hours while he played Dungeons & Dragons with his friends. Dungeons & Dragons is a roleplaying game, in which players are characters in an ongoing fantasy story. One person runs the game and creates an imaginary adventure for the other players, who take on the different roles.

“During my weekly D&D game, I could put cancer out of my head as much as possible and enjoy myself. That helped me as much as medication,” said Gillick.

Acute lymphocytic leukemia

"Dungeons & Dragons was one of the things I attribute to helping me get through cancer, so why not use it to help others get through cancer? That was the idea I was looking for."

John Gillick
close up of John Gillick in military uniform in front of American flag

Gillick was 20 years old and a computer systems programmer stationed at Maxwell Air Force Base in 2005 when he became ill during a training session. He went to the medical center on base to be treated for dehydration. The doctor noticed red spots on his arms and recommended he have his blood platelets checked.

The results of Gillick’s blood draw sent him to Jackson Hospital for a bone marrow biopsy, which confirmed that he had acute lymphocytic leukemia, a cancer that starts in white blood cells. He responded so well to his first round of chemotherapy, that he went into remission a month later. That meant tests showed no more evidence of cancer in his system. But he still faced years of maintenance chemo, follow-up tests, and long-term side effects including migraines, sleep problems, and depression.

A way to help others

In 2006, Gillick was medically retired from the military and living in Connecticut. His successful response to cancer treatment inspired him to do something to help others, and he looked for a meaningful way to express it. He bought gift cards for children at the Smilow Cancer Hospital at Yale New-Haven and donated money to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, but he wanted to do more.

“Eventually, something clicked,” said Gillick. “D&D was one of the things I attribute to helping me get through cancer, so why not use it to help others get through cancer? That was the idea I was looking for.”

He organized an event at a local gaming store to raise funds for the American Cancer Society. To play as characters, people came to the store and made a donation. Gillick called the event “Castles & Chemo.”

Gillick based the characters and scenario of the game’s story on people he knew who had had cancer, and on cancer types and treatments. For example, the character “Dorothy Grimhammer” is based on Gillick’s grandmother who died from colon cancer. In the story, Grimhammer staves off a disease called the “White Glut” through “strange and ancient divine magic.”

The event was successful, raising more than $1,000 for the American Cancer Society. As word spread, other gamers began asking Gillick for advice about creating their own Castle & Chemo events. So Gillick incorporated Castles & Chemo into a nonprofit organization. In addition to gaming events, the organization collects tabletop games and donates them to cancer centers.

Since its first event, Castles & Chemo has raised more than $10,000 to support cancer research and has helped organize events around the world.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and master’s-prepared nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

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