A Teen Cancer Story – The Reasons to Write It

Young adult fiction runs the gamut from paranormal zombie Barbie dolls in space, to modern day Romeos and Juliets on crack, as well as the fruity lovey-dovey stories that take a light approach to the high school experience. But when a writer sits down to write a story about a teenager with cancer, it is anything but the typical experience.

Writers such as Amy Koss (Side Effects), John Green (The Fault In Our Stars), and yours truly (A Place In This Life) have put the tender years of formation known as adolescence down on paper from the perspective of being ill. But why go down this path? Is it to get readers to cry (they often do)? Is it to do something different (approaching a tough subject is anything but status quo)?

No. It is usually because the writer has had that experience in his or her life, be it through a friend, family member, or themselves. For example, Koss’ daughter became ill with Hodgkins Lymphoma as a teenager. The experience of seeing her daughter through cancer motivated Koss to write Side Effects, a book that emphasizes that not all kids with cancer die, that they are no different than other kids, and that they are surrounded by idiots (just like the rest of us).

Green exemplifies this as well in The Fault in Our Stars. In an interview with National Public Radio (NPR)1 earlier this year, he said he wanted to write a book that didn’t feature teenagers as “wide eyed” with the answers to life’s existential questions. He also noted that teenagers are just that, whether they are sick or well. After spending time with young cancer patients, Green wrote his story to provide a realistic account of what it’s like to be a teenager with cancer.

For me, writing a book about a teenager going through cancer was personal. My first boyfriend at 14 is who the character “Todd” was based off of. In this story, it is the first love of a teenage girl who is stricken with leukemia. The experience of love, fear, illness and life changes explores how far things can go in spite of illness, and how deeply they mean to a young heart on the edge of the unknown. Spurred by my own fear that I had thyroid cancer in 2008, A Place In This Life was devastating to come to terms with and cathartic to write. It was also never my intention to “write a YA cancer book.”

Exploring deep, dark corners in life often reveal tales that are scarier than any vampire story. Reality bites more than sharp teeth. This is perfectly examined in the YA genre with stories such as Speak (rape), Thirteen Reasons Why (suicide), and the stories noted above (cancer). In particular, by writing about teenagers with cancer, I think we find the deepest wounds of all, and more often than not, the most thorough healing as we come away from the experience.

1 Star Crossed: When Teens With Cancer Fall In Love, NPR Books, January 28, 2012
Image by D Sharon Pruitt

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