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?

Reconsidering Cherry Ames on Veteran’s Day

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photo: JParadisi (2009)

     This fall, I’m reading the first 4 books of the Cherry Ames series, by Helen Wells, for the first time. Cherry Ames, if you don’t know, is an 18 year-old student nurse, who’s intuitive style of patient care and indomitable spunk lead her through a spree of madcap adventures in the halls of fictional Spencer Hospital, eventually “winning” her cap and the coveted black stripe of a graduate nurse, during World War II.  

     Unlike Cherry, I did not want to be nurse as a young person, and I wasn’t particularly interested in books about nursing. From junior high on, I felt heroines like Cherry Ames were kid stuff.  In high school, I read Kurt Vonnegut, John Irving, Ray Bradbury, Robert A.  Heinlein, and James Thurber.  Characters such as Michael Valentine and Garp held more intrigue for me.

     I felt pretty much the same way as an adult reading Cherry Ames.  In a world of Nurse Jackies, Cherry’s declarations that,

The patient always comes first. Save the patient at any cost to yourself. That was the nurse’s creed.”

and,

“Nursing had always been Cherry’s dream. She knew it was the finest way a girl could serve people, and Cherry loved people and wanted to help them. Nursing was the way to put her idealism into practice.”

come across as cheesy cliques.  At least, that’s what I thought until last Thursday, November 5th, 2009, when the Fort Hood shootings occurred, and the stories of heroism during the crisis became publicly known.

     The first story of heroism I heard was that of civilian officer Sgt. Kimberly Munley, the first responder on the scene, who simultaneously shot the assailant as he fired upon her. She put herself  (as the clique goes) in the way danger to save the lives of others.

     On Tuesday morning, I watched The Today Show. Meredith Vieira’s guests were 19 year-old Pfc. Amber Baher, and her mother.  Amber is a soldier, credited with applying a tourniquet on the bleeding wound of one of her “battle buddies,” then carrying him to safety, while she herself was shot in the back. I don’t know if it was adrenaline, but my own personal safety wasn’t really what mattered to me,”  Bahr told Meredith. “Making sure that my battle buddies were safe was my No.1 priority.”

     Another soldier, US Army Reservist Dorothy “Dorrie” Carskadon (who has family here in Portland) was injured during the shooting, reportedly while assisting one of her comrades.

     I am deeply moved by each of these stories of individuals choosing to save the lives of others, at any cost to themselves.  By their actions, they put their idealism into practice. These women, these soldiers, exemplified, on American soil, the values and commitment of our past and present veterans overseas. This type of courage happens everyday, on battlefields far from home. “Their lives’ work is our security, and the freedom we all too often take for granted.”

     In healthcare, we borrow military language. We wage a war on cancer. We battle disease. Severely broken bodies in trauma units are FUBAR. Today, I went to work, hoping I would also borrow a small amount of the courage and idealism displayed by our soldiers.

I need to reconsider my opinion of Cherry Ames.