My first experience with childhood cancer was an intimate one; in the lightning bolt that is diagnosis my family was told that my brother Matt’s shin splints were not shin splints at all but a tumor on his spine. Matt was 17 at the time, and lived valiantly for another ten years through five recurrences of cancer, losing a lung, a kidney and ultimately his life to the disease. It was during his treatment that I learned what the cancer journey looks like for a patient and family of a young person with cancer. Over the years of Matt’s treatment, I became familiar with many of the day to day negotiations that patients and families take on in life with cancer.
Our experience having Matt treated in Boston, made me curious, about what the global picture of cancer looked like for young people. The statistics were grim, only 20% of pediatric patients globally survive, while by contrast in the US and other High-Income Countries, the survival rate is over 80%. This disparity appalled and intrigued me and I wanted to learn more. What were the treatment options and challenges for families globally? What were the contributing factors for the low survival rate, and who were these families that like mine had been rocked and changed by the disease? My brother’s doctor, Carlos Rodriguez-Galindo, had been working in the global oncology field for decades and it was with him that I began to first discuss the possibility of examining children’s cancer from a global perspective in a film.
The conversations between our production team and Carlos and his colleagues at The Global Health Initiative at Dana Farber / Boston children’s began a five-year journey to document individual patients through their cancer treatment in Myanmar, Egypt, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Ghana. The intention in the film is to represent the experiences of these patients and their healthcare teams as a window into the realities of cancer treatment globally.
As our production team followed these patients, we began to learn more about the larger approach to treating cancer in low resource settings and more about the people working to improve treatment and outcomes for patients in these difficult geopolitical contexts. While the global statistics are devastating, we met and worked with doctors, nurses, psychologists, and non-profits that have and are continuing to, significantly increase survival rates in their countries. Seeing this, we expanded the lens of our film to include some of this context. We filmed at hospital sites with healthcare professionals actively and diligently working to increase survival rates. There is a global movement underway to bring the resources to places that urgently need them and address what will be an increase in the number of children with cancer in the coming decades. We hope this film can be a part of the conversation centered around empathy, awareness and action.