This essay was originally published in The Washington Post. Additional pictures are posted on their website and also in a separate story published on The Huffington Post.
It’s 6:30 a.m. and the sun is starting to peek out over the horizon. I take another gulp of my coffee, and leave the keys with the valet outside the hospital. I check my camera, making sure I have a formatted memory card and fresh batteries in my flash.
As I grab my bag from the back seat, I can’t help but notice the mismatched socks, leftover granola wrappers, and wrinkled school fliers that litter my car. I take a deep breath, thankful that my kids’ seats are empty. I’m not at the hospital for them this morning. I’m there for 4-year-old Phoebe.
About four years ago, I started taking pictures of sick kids. I look for smiles in hospital rooms and look past IV poles in hopes of capturing the fleeting moments of carefree childhoods that exist alongside tragic diagnoses and crippling test results. I look for little hands grasping onto hospital beds as toddlers take their first steps in brightly decorated triage rooms. My heart skips a beat when I see an older sister smile at a younger sibling, knowing that siblings, too, suffer when their loved ones are sick.
In the age of social media, it is easy to run across pictures and stories of kids facing devastating odds and feel helpless. As I stood by Phoebe’s bedside that day, I felt that way, too. Phoebe had been recently diagnosed with DIPG, an aggressive brain tumor. While there are treatments to improve her quality of life, the long-term prognosis is tragically grim.
Only 4 percent of all cancer funding is earmarked for childhood cancer research. And in the past 20 years, only three new pediatric cancer-specific drugs have been developed. This month, when you see pictures on Facebook reminding you that September is childhood cancer awareness month, please don’t just get sad. Get involved.
Here are four things you can do this month to help kids like Phoebe.
1. Call your representatives in Congress. Tell them that you care about cancer research legislation. Learn about federal cancer programs. Ask your representatives to participate in the Childhood Cancer Caucus, “a clearinghouse for information on pediatric cancer and a forum to aid Members of Congress in working together to address pediatric cancer.”
2. Participate in childhood cancer awareness and advocacy foundations. Give money if you’re able. Many organizations help cancer patients and survivors develop important allies in the fight against childhood cancer. As the St. Baldrick’s Foundation explains, “Childhood cancer drugs aren’t very profitable for pharmaceutical companies, which is why so few have been developed. But as a result of the childhood cancer community’s united advocacy efforts, the Creating Hope Act changed that, offering companies vouchers to expedite the development and approval of these drugs.”
3. What is your superpower? Medical providers offer the crucial life-changing support to children battling pediatric cancer. But consider if there is some special talent that you have to offer these families. Whether you are a great cook, a decent photographer or a gifted party planner, families can really benefit from your services.
4. If you know a family battling pediatric cancer (or other life-altering challenge), consider offering to help in specific, concrete ways. Helping doesn’t require a huge commitment or some unique talent. And while general offers to help are appreciated, it can be difficult for a family to ask you to help with a specific task. Instead, consider the daily things most families do – food shopping, cleaning, picking up dinner – and offer to complete that task. Or if you know something that the child really likes, consider creating opportunities for the child to have a magical experience during the days in between treatment. For example, kids who love animals might really like free tickets to a zoo, kids who adore cooking might be wowed by having a chance to cook with a talented chef. And parents who are completely and utterly exhausted might appreciate a pre-paid night out to dinner and a movie – child care included.
Last summer, I was asked to talk about my experiences working with chronically ill children and their families. And while I am a former litigator-turned-law professor, I struggled to find my voice. It wasn’t until the very end of the talk, when the parents of these children addressed the audience, that I finally heard the words I was hoping to say. Phoebe’s dad, Cole Dooley, a physician and the founder of Face Kids’ Cancer, stood up and addressed the crowd. “Please don’t feel sorry for me,” he pleaded. “Get angry. Get involved. Demand better funding for childhood cancer research.”
I want the world to see that these families are real, that they are local, and that most of all, these families need our help. This month, and always, please don’t just feel sorry for children battling pediatric cancer. Get mad at the realities these kids face. Then do something, because you can.