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Explaining Illness to the Young

January 21, 2010 By:
Rita Charleston, JE Feature
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Beverlye Hyman Fead was frightened.

She had already been through a bout with uterine lining cancer some 19 years ago, lived through a radical hysterectomy, and was told since the cancer was self-contained, no more treatments were necessary.

"My grandmother, mother and two sisters died of cancer, so I thought I was the lucky one. Now it was my turn, but I was cured, and I didn't have to be afraid anymore," says Hyman Fead by phone from her home in California.

But she was wrong. In 2002, plagued by stomach pains, she went to the doctor, never thinking anything was really wrong.

"The doctor took all kinds of tests and a biopsy found eight large tumors in my abdomen. It was Stage 4 cancer that had metastasized. It was inoperable. And just in case I didn't get it, they told me I had two months to live."

A fighter with a strong will to survive, Hyman Fead refused the radical procedures doctors offered to do, including extensive chemotherapy, a resectioning of her stomach and even more chemo. Other doctors she sought out agreed.

"But I was already 68 years old at the time and refused to do what they suggested. I wanted a quality of life, and that's not what they were proposing. So I kept looking for more opinions."

Finally, Hyman Fead got her first piece of good news from a doctor at UCLA, who said that he wasn't going to operate or do chemotherapy.

Instead, he offered to try an experimental treatment on Hyman Fead's hormone-receptive cancer.

After the technique was approved by a tumor board, Hyman Fead got the first of her treatments, which eventually proved successful.

An artist most of her life, she now looked for a way to express her feelings in another way. With some instruction, she was able to eventually write a story in poetry and prose that expressed her inner feelings, resulted in her first book, I Can Do This: Living With Cancer, Tracing a Year of Hope.

Some time later, Hyman Fead's granddaughter, Tessa Mae Hamermesh, then 8, who kept the book by her bedside, told her mother she wanted to do a book report based on her grandmother's ordeal.

Her mother vetoed the idea, claiming that most kids at that age didn't know much about cancer (and maybe even shouldn't).

" 'Then why don't Nana and I write a book together, explaining cancer to kids,' " Hyman Fead recalls about Tessa's proposal. "I told her I thought that was a wonderful idea. So I asked Tessa to write down some questions that bothered her, and I would try to answer them."

Eventually, this comprehensive journey between a grandmother and her granddaughter resulted in a book called Nana, What's Cancer?

Illustrated by artist Shennen Bersani, the book includes a comprehensive glossary of cancer-related terms to help young readers.

Now 11, Tessa is devoted to helping other kids understand the realities and effects of cancer, and inspiring others to help defeat the disease once and for all.

And Hyman Fead, proud of the fact that she's a hearty and healthy adventurous 75-year-old, is a legislative ambassador and "Hero of Hope" for the American Cancer Society, the book's publisher.

Living in a small town in California, Hyman Fead says that when word of her illness spread throughout the neighborhoods, she found out people were going to synagogue to pray for her: "I swear I could hear the people at temple. What a kind, loving feeling."

Today, Hyman Fead says that she feels extremely lucky to be around -- in ways she never thought possible.--

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