Why My Main Character Has Cancer

grace_nohairI self-published my first novel, DOORWAYS TO ARKOMO, in May 2014 after submitting it to roughly thirty agents. I heard back from about half of them, mostly with variations of this sentence, “we like your writing, but the book is not for us.” It was…disheartening, but not unexpected.

I knew the book was going to be a hard sell because one of the main characters – Grace – is an 11-year-old girl with cancer. Grace was deeply inspired my daughter, Ana, who was diagnosed with a rare, malignant liver tumor a few months after her 11th birthday, spent weeks in the hospital, underwent chemotherapy and endured many scans and other procedures before having a liver transplant in February 2013.

My reason for creating the character of Grace was simple. I wanted to cast my daughter in the role of a heroic protagonist even though she was sick. I had this memory of her initial 40-day hospital stay when she watched the Hunger Games over and over again. It was September, and she wanted to be Katniss for Halloween. At the time her hair reached the middle of her back. She couldn’t wait to braid it the way Katniss braided it in the movie. Ana started chemotherpy in early October and two weeks later she lost her hair -right before her school’s Halloween dance. She wore a fake braid, but it wasn’t the same.

The main characters in Ana’s favorite books and movies are strong and healthy. Katniss, Tris (Divergent), Thomas (The Maze Runner), even Harry Potter (not a favorite of hers, but I loved these books) – while all plagued with challenges that included poverty, suppression, loss of parents and violence – are beautiful. They are whole. They are healthy.

I mean, how can a child who has a port in their chest go on a quest? How can a kid who has to take medication to stay alive, truly be free to save the world? It’s a logistical nightmare, but I knew it could be done. I was compelled to figure it out. I created a world called Arkomo that could only be reached from the hospital and a princess from Arkomo who was lonely and driven to find a friend. The girls’ shared need is what brought them together, and keeping things in the setting of the hospital¬† enabled me to work around my main characters’ failing health. Grace can only get to Arkomo from the Hospital. And Sorel (the princess) can only enter our world from within the Hospital.

So it’s out there – a book with a child who loses her hair, has to get chemo, scans and shots and can barely walk by the end of her adventure, but still saves the world.

And now I’m finishing up my newest novel, CUT, which features – you guessed it – a main protagonist with cancer. His name is Zachary Daryl Lyon and he’s got leukemia. Did you know that kids with leukemia often undergo years of treatment and that if they relapse – they have to start it all over again? Zach is in the hospital when the book begins. He’s in remission for the third time in his life and he is as epic as they get – as far as heroes go.

I know I’m facing the same challenges with CUT as I did with DOORWAYS. I’ve begun submitting the manuscript to agents, testing the waters on how receptive they are to the concept since the characters in this book are all teenagers and the story is solidly young adult as opposed to middle grade. I’m envisioning eye rolling out there in agent-land. Not another character with cancer! Another Hazel, another Gus (riding on the Fault in Our Stars bandwagon). There’s just no market for that!

Only I think there is.

My books are about honoring the children that I’ve met these last few years since my daughter’s diagnosis. It’s about seeing them, authentically, and honoring how hard they fight for each day, each moment. It’s about letting them see themselves as heroes – without hair, without health, without the guarantee of tomorrow.

My daughter often rolls her eyes when people call her brave. She says, “what choice do I have?” But she endures the blood draws, and the medication, and the constant scans, and the surgery – she lives with the scars and soldiers on, looking and sounding like a normal teenager, but forced to be twice as strong. That is the biggest reason why my main character has cancer. I want my writing to be a mirror. I want kids like Grace and Zach and Ana to recognize how strong they are – how truly heroic.