Why so many cancer stories? #every3minutes
Though the term “tween” didn’t exist at the time, that’s what I was when I first knew a young person who died from cancer. In fact, this was the first person I knew who had died at all. His name was Michael. He was younger than me, and was buried in the Ghostbusters costume he had recently worn on Halloween. “Ha ha,” everyone somberly chuckled. “I get it. Did he think of that himself?” He did. He had.
In the years since, I’ve known other young people who have fought, triumphed over, or succumbed to cancer. I’m sure you do too. It’s because, as St. Baldrick’s Foundation says, “More children are lost to cancer in the U.S. than any other disease—in fact, more than many other childhood diseases combined.” When people balk at what they perceive to be a fad in YA literature, the prevalence of books dealing with kids with cancer, I think about what I have learned from my friend Kitty and her crusade in honor of the memory of her son Aiden. Every three minutes a child is diagnosed with cancer. That’s a lot of kids. A lot of teens. A lot of friends of those teens impacted by the news and everything that follows. Books about cancer aren’t faddish. They are reflective of the world we live in, and they are an important way for teens to process and understand a grim reality that surrounds them. One in 285 young people will receive a cancer diagnosis before their 20th birthday.
September is Childhood Cancer Awareness month. And though we all know how they fight the term, teens are children in this sense. Here are some stories in honor of the month. Spoilers included, because nothing spoils a story like cancer.
When her best friend and dance buddy Olivia is diagnosed with cancer, Zoe struggles to wrap her mind around this sudden change in the direction they both expected their year would take. This book, told from Zoe’s perspective, does an especially good job of looking at the impact of a cancer diagnosis on the other people in a teen’s community. Some react with fundraisers, some scoff at the effort as too little too late. And Zoe, she has to decide how much to honor their shared dreams, and how far she can strike out on her own in a future that will likely not include her best friend.
Thirteen-year-old Steve’s five-year-old brother is diagnosed with cancer here. This is a great title for your younger teens, and it addresses the reality that a family’s cancer diagnosis is but one significant thing happening in the lives of teens. Life around you doesn’t go on hold when your sibling gets sick, and Sonneblick brings that reality to roost with humor and heart.
Zac and Mia meet during treatment and have different approaches to life and their cancers, but nonetheless they strike up a friendship. The two share the narration in alternating chapters here. Unlike some romanticized cancer driven novels of the 80s and early 90s, Zac & Mia illustrates that cancer isn’t just a sad plot line for homecoming queens and beloved the valedictorian “too perfect to live.” It can strike anyone, even unlikable characters.
Though the mortality rate for kids with cancer is still unacceptably high, progress is being made. Alice in Side Effects May Vary believes that she won’t make it, so enlists her friend Harvey in knocking items off her bucket list. When she goes into remission, she faces the possibility of a much longer life ahead of her… along with the consequences of her bucket list decisions.
Another “bucket list” book, but with a grim outcome. Tessa is sixteen, and nearing the end of the four years her doctors expected her to live after her leukemia diagnosis. She is feisty, and not ready to give up. As she races against time and her own progressing illness to knock items off her list, her anger at this fate, and the emotional toll a sick child takes on everyone are poignantly clear.
Greg’s mom nudges him to reconnect with acerbic Rachel, a friend of the family, after she is diagnosed with leukemia during their senior year of high school. The book, as the title would lead you to believe, bluntly looks at the fact that cancer just sucks, and knowing someone who is dying young doesn’t mean you’re granted transcendent life lessons, but it does mean you’re thrust into a crappy situation and no one wants to be there.
Charlie and his friends are dead set on driving away the new English teacher, an activity heartily encouraged by new student Charlotte, who also happens to be the younger sister of the new teacher. Charlotte’s motive is more personal than fun though. She is done pursuing cancer treatment, and she hopes that convincing a class of math and science geeks that literature is important will be enough of a distraction to her caregiver sister that she’ll ease up and let Charlotte live out her life her own way. Told from Charlie’s perspective, this is a story about friends and siblings pulling together to support each other through a friend’s illness and death.
Kitty, who I mentioned earlier, recommends CureSearch as a notable organization to support if you are interested in research and funding for childhood cancers, and for supporting the families impacted by them. It would be great if there were fewer cancer books, but only if it means that there are fewer cancer stories to be told.
About Heather Booth
Heather Booth has worked in libraries since 2001 and am the author of Serving Teens Through Reader’s Advisory (ALA Editions, 2007) and the editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Servcies along with Karen Jensen.
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