Conversations About Dying: Is “Sick Lit” Bad for Teens?

My name is JParadisi, RN and I am a recovering TV medical drama addict.

I am one of those nurses with whom other people refuse to watch TV medical dramas, because I watch them as if I’m playing Jeopardy.

I shout out the answers, instruct the handsome actor-doctor that he must intubate now, and make diagnostic recommendations. It’s a sickness. Anyone unfortunate enough to watch with me chides, “It’s only a TV show!”

Drawing by jparadisi
Drawing by jparadisi

I don’t read books about cancer or illness for entertainment either, but John Green’s young adult novel, The Fault in Our Stars, is a story about living. Told in the first person by Hazel, a 16-year-old living with stage IV thyroid cancer making its home in her lungs since she was thirteen, the novel represents childhood cancer so true to life I will not add further commentary except to urge you to read it.

The book’s poetic title, The Fault of Our Stars, is a bon mot of Shakespeare’s famous line from Julius Caesar:

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, / But in ourselves, that we are underlings.

While researching this post, I was surprised to find an article criticizing The Fault of Our Stars of being an over-sensationalized addition to the writing genre dubbed teen “Sick Lit.”

 What’s Sick Lit, and why have I, a writer of health-related information, never heard of it?

Sick Lit refers to memoirs, novels, and nonfiction books about dying from, or surviving, disease, either physical or mental. Cancer is a hot topic in this genre — I have no idea why I’ve never heard of it.

The above article’s author complains:

It’s not just the fact that these books feature terminally ill teenagers that makes them so questionable — they’re also aimed at children as young as 12.

My question is: Are books about their peers dying of cancer harmful to teenage readers?

In my opinion, they are not. No matter how adults try to protect children from the harsh realities of life, we cannot.

Many children have parents, siblings, or classmates living with cancer or other terminal illnesses. By deeming books that realistically portray the challenges and social stigmas accompanying childhood cancer, is society protecting children, or avoiding its collective discomfort with the topic?

Do you think children should be exposed to stories of childhood cancer and terminal illness? In what ways do you think it’s harmful? Do you think this topic should be banned for children under certain ages? Why?