May 23, 2019

The defeat of the cancer cells

Faced with a scary diagnosis, 7-year-old Kayson Umphress created a comic book depicting his battle against ependymoma, a rare type of brain tumor.

photo of Kayson Umphress
Kayson Umphress, vanquisher of cancer cells.

Receiving a cancer diagnosis isn’t easy for anyone. For children, the journey can be particularly frightening as they encounter unfamiliar experiences like MRI scans, surgery, and radiotherapy.

Seven-year-old Kayson Umphress found a creative way to cope after learning he had a brain tumor. He began by asking lots of questions, including 3 big ones: “What’s cancer?” “What’s radiotherapy?” And, “Do I really need to do this?”

His doctor, Tasha McDonald, MD, answered patiently and explained to Kayson what he would experience while receiving 33 doses of radiation. Dr. McDonald is chief of service for radiation oncology at Kaiser Permanente in the Northwest.

Kayson used that information to write and illustrate a comic book called “The Defeat of the Cancer Cells.” The book describes his cancer battle in simple terms. Healthy cells are the good guys who “work together to help your body do amazing things.” But when a good cell “makes a bad copy,” a big, bold “uh-oh!” appears on the page.

“Those cells are called cancer. They are bullies!” the narrator explains. “They fight against your healthy cells and make you sick.”

Battling the bullies

Kayson knows a thing or 2 about how those bullies can make you sick. As a kindergartner, he experienced migraine headaches, low energy, and rapid mood swings before learning that he had ependymoma, a tumor that forms in the brain or spinal cord and affects the central nervous system.

Comic book 'Defeat the Cancer Cells' cover art
"The Defeat the Cancer Cells" cover art.

Thanks to Dr. McDonald and a team of radiation therapists who are specially trained to work with pediatric patients, Kayson kept his spirits up through 7 weeks of treatment.

Each day, he burst through a rainbow of colorful streamers at the entrance to Radiation Oncology like a superhero, cheered on by staff and patients. In the treatment room, he snuggled with a Pokémon blanket from Dr. McDonald and picked out the music he’d listen to while the invisible superheroes waged war inside his body.

Understanding the cancer journey

Looking back on his experience, Kayson said creating the comic book helped him make sense of what he was going through while also helping other kids. He plans to create a series of comic books for children facing health issues.

“Everything can be really scary when you don’t understand what’s happening,” he said.

It has been nearly 2 years since Kayson’s last treatment, and there are no signs of a recurrence. In comic book lingo, that wonderful news is worthy of a “Zap! Pow! Boom!”