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'Lion in the House' Documents Children with Cancer

ED GORDON, host:

I'm Ed Gordon, and this is NEWS AND NOTES.

A new PBS documentary titled A Lion in the House follows the inspirational and heartbreaking stories of five kids living and dying with cancer.

The film was primarily shot at Cincinnati's Children's Hospital in Ohio.

(Soundbite of film “A Lion in the House”)

Unidentified Man: Justin Ashcraft has leukemia. He's been fighting cancer for 10 years, longer than almost any kid in the country. Things have been stable for the last year, and Justin recently graduated from high school. But he's just found out he relapsed again.

Unidentified Woman #1: He never went to a senior dance, girls, driving, and like hanging out, just hanging out with the guys. He has no group.

Mr. JUSTIN ASHCRAFT : I really don't dwell on things. I just like to push ahead. I have nothing to be afraid of.

GORDON: The filmmakers are Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert. They spoke with NPR's Farai Chideya about shooting the project, which took six years to make.

Ms. JULIA REICHERT (Filmmaker and Director, A Lion in the House): One day in early 1997, we got a phone call at our house from the head oncologist, the head cancer doctor at Cincinnati Children's Hospital, which is not too far from where we live. He was looking for filmmakers who could make a long-term study of kids fighting cancer.

He referred to the film Hoop Dreams, which many people might have seen. You know, it follows two young adolescent kids as they pursue their dreams of being basketball stars over a six-year period. So he said, you want to make the Hoop Dreams of childhood cancer?

We were very taken aback because what the doctor didn't know is that my own daughter, Lela, who was 17 at the time, had just finished her treatment for childhood cancer. So, our first thought was, it was a year of total hell and we do not want to go back there. But after really just a few minutes, we realized that it was a great opportunity and also that it was kind of a responsibility, in a way.

FARAI CHIDEYA reporting:

What did your daughter think of the idea of you guys doing this documentary?

Ms. REICHERT: Well, my daughter Lela was totally opposed to our making the film. She said, mom, don't bring cancer back into my life. Don't bring cancer back into our house. She wanted to go on, live her life, but she did not want to identify as a cancer survivor. She did not want to think about cancer anymore. And that's, of course, very typical of young people.

She's 27 now. She's doing great. And she has taken on the identity of a cancer survivor. She actually is working with us to reach other young cancer survivors. So she's actually very proud of the film; she likes it very much.

Mr. STEVEN BOGNAR (Filmmaker and Director, A Lion in the House): Actually, one of the outreach projects around the film, Farai, is called Survivor Alert and we're doing this with the Centers for Disease Control. It's an empowerment project to engage young adult survivors of childhood cancer, of which there are now 300,000 around the U.S., to get connected with their long-term health. To, you know, know what they got when they had cancer; to keep that with them as a record; to stay on top of it so they can avoid the long-term consequences of being a cancer survivor.

CHIDEYA: Let's go into some of the profiles. You had dozens of hours of film that you actually showed us, let alone all the ones that you, I'm sure, have stored up. Let's talk about Tim Woods, 15 years old with Hodgkin's lymphoma, inner city African-American. And when we meet him, he's in denial about his physical state: flushing his meds down the toilet, ignoring his oncologist's warnings to gain weight. Let's listen here to a clip from the film.

(Soundbite of film "A Lion in the House")

Mr. TIM WOODS: That's my favorite nurse I was telling y'all about.

Unidentified Woman #2: Oh, Tim, you're just so sweet. Here, I got some meds for you to take.

Mr. WOODS: Ah, no!

Unidentified Woman: Tim.

Mr. WOODS: No.

Unidentified Woman #2: Tim.

Mr. WOODS: We ain't going there.

Unidentified Woman #2: Tim, you have to...

Mr. WOODS: I took some last night, uh-uh. That's nasty.

Unidentified Woman #2: It's an hour before you go to radiation.

Mr. WOODS: Uh-uh.

Unidentified Woman #2: Mm hmm.

Mr. WOODS: Nope.

Unidentified Woman #2: We've got a good rapport. He knows that I won't take anything off of him and that I'll make him do what he's supposed to do.

Mr. WOODS: I like the attention. I honestly can say I love the attention. Before I got sick, I wasn't hardly getting any attention. Now, I get all the attention and I like it.

Mr. BOGNAR: You know, Tim's an amazing young man and, in many ways, the film chronicles his coming of age. He's had a really tough life at an early age. His father was murdered when he was - when Tim was about 12. And he's had other traumas and challenges in his life. His resilience is what is so amazing.

On one hand, he is rebellious and he - in the early part of the filming, he was what they call noncompliant. But there were several moments in the movie -you'll see in the movie - when he went through, I guess, wakeup calls. All the young people, you know, you think you're immortal, but he - cancer is a profound wakeup call, obviously. And watching Tim grow into his own maturity was really amazing.

CHIDEYA: You've got younger kids who are just starting their treatment. You have older kids who have been fighting leukemia for a decade. Does this, in any way, remind you of the AIDS crisis, where you have people who have been expected not to live and then, as they live, other completely different questions arise than if they had died?

Ms. REICHERT: You know, you're the first person ever to bring this up. I think there're a lot of similarities, a lot of things that we've learned from the AIDS crisis that have been applied to the situation of cancer. And I'll tell you one thing: through the AIDS crisis, I think, individuals learned how to care for other individuals whose lives were in jeopardy.

The same is true, I think, when you see the film. I think you see parents and other relatives finding whatever they can do to keep the child more comfortable, whatever they can do to make it just a little bit easier for them. It's really an outpouring of love that you see from the parent to the children, and from the nurses to the children and the doctors to the children.

Mr. BOGNAR: And, you know, the strategies, too, how that compassion is manifested, the strategies that different parents use to get their kids through this ordeal. There's a mom in our film named Regina Fields and her young son, Al, is 11 years old, diagnosed with lymphoma, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Regina's a single mom. She's African-American. She works full-time, having to keep her job in order to keep her insurance because, of course, her son has to have insurance.

The tools in her toolbox for keeping her son on track involve humor and tough love, joking, you know, caring, spoiling him, getting mad at him, embracing him. It's just an amazing array of tools that she uses.

CHIDEYA: Did it strike you that disparities in healthcare permeated the issue of kids and cancer?

Ms. REICHERT: When we started the film, that was nothing we were thinking about or looked for. But what we started noticing is that, you know, if a family doesn't have a car, getting mom to the hospital to visit and to be with the child becomes very difficult. Marietha Woods, Tim's mom, took - had to take two, you know, change of city buses. Cincinnati weather in the winter, let me tell you, is not pleasant. Poor families living on the edge can fall way - just right below the edge, if they are hit with cancer.

Mr. BOGNAR: And, you know, I would say the issue transcends race. Actually it has much more to do with class.

Ms. REICHERT: Mm hmm.

Mr. BOGNAR: ...because we saw this with white families as well as African-Americans.

Mr. REICHERT: It's an economic situation. The economic burdens of cancer are -there very subtle and there're many - like the families face everyday.

CHIDEYA: Filmmaker Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert joined us from WYSO in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Thank you so much.

Mr. REICHERT: You're welcome.

Mr. BOGNAR: Farai, thank you.

GORDON: That was NPR's Farai Chideya. A Lion in the House airs tonight and Thursday on PBS. For more information, log on to npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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