Painting wooden figures is an all-time favorite craft for kids at C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital. Five years ago, a little boy with no hair sat beside me, splotching gobs of glittery paint atop a dragon made of wood. I don’t remember the boy’s name, but I remember his face, his kind eyes. When his mom came to get him from the playroom after he had been discharged, he turned to me. “This is for you,” he said. And before I could respond, he had bolted out of the playroom and was halfway down the hall, his left arm reaching up with little fingers curled tight around his mother’s hand.
I will never forget how moving it was for me, how touched I was by his altruism. This little boy, genuinely selfless, didn’t think twice about giving me his carefully crafted creation. He wanted a complete stranger to have it. Children like him inspire me.
September may be half over, but not a day has gone by that I haven’t thought about Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. Throughout my journey in medicine, although childhood cancer has been a cause that I’ve been passionate about for many years now, I have tried to keep an open mind about my career selection. But I’m the kind of person who has always known what I’ve wanted. This is who I am, and this is what I am about. I am determined, now more than ever before, to pursue a career in pediatric oncology and palliative care. I want nothing more than to dedicate myself to improving the lives of these children and their families in any way that I can.
But September is not about me. September is about all the children around the world diagnosed with cancer. All the loving parents devastated by the news. The siblings struggling to understand. The families that suffer so deeply. September is just one month, and 30 days is not nearly enough.
Let’s face it. It’s not ok. It’s not ok that so many children, instead of starting school this September, are being diagnosed with cancer. So many children are spending their days in and out of hospitals instead of in classrooms and outside playing tag at recess.
September reminds me just how important the cause of childhood cancer is to me, and how important it should be to all of us. Childhood Cancer Awareness Month celebrates the great strides that we have made in caring for children with cancer, and at the same time looks ahead at the great challenges that remain. This month calls for reflection, about how the landscapes of awareness, research, policy, and clinical care have all evolved with time. And, how much farther we still have to go.
The dragon sits atop my bookshelf. It reminds me every day of the little boy who taught me how to be selfless, who showed me the meaning of altruism even if he didn’t know what the word means.
So many of these young patients and their families have touched me over the years. I hope that I can someday return the favor, that I can touch the lives of those affected by childhood cancer with my own version of “glittery dragons.”
Trisha Paul is a third year medical student at the University of Michigan Medical School who graduated from the University of Michigan with a B.S. in Honors English. She recently published the book Chronicling Childhood Cancer: A Collection of Personal Stories by Children and Teens with Cancer, and she aspires to become a pediatric oncologist and pediatric palliative care physician. Trisha chronicles her explorations in learning, researching, and teaching about illness narratives at illnessnarratives.com.