Whimsical characters show cancer in a different light -- Gazette.Net


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Imaginative illustrations and emotive verses give life to the pages of “My Body Needs Help,” characterizing the struggle of author and illustrator Annette Abrams’ battle with cancer.

Abrams, 56, of Bethesda was a pre-school teacher for 11 years. After she decided to take a sabbatical and pursue a career in art in spring 2007, a lump in her neck led to a quick diagnosis of non-Hodgkins lymphoma.

The set of characters in “My Body Needs Help” are very different from those in a typical book for children. An angry, sharp-toothed, green-eyed cell represents cancer, a bald fairy-like caricature acts as chemotherapy and radiation comes in the form of an extraterrestrial-like figure emanating vibrant red swirls.

“I always draw whimsically, and during treatment, with nothing in mind, I just drew,” Abrams says.

Doctors, nurses, technicians and stem cell “helper heroes” offer the lively support system that breathes life into the poignant tale, narrated by Netta, the confused patient and protagonist who gradually loses her hair during the course of the narrative.

After various rounds of treatment at the National Institutes of Health, including chemotherapy and radiation, as well as two stem cell transplants facilitated by two of her younger siblings and a protocol study, Abrams’ cancer went into remission in fall 2008.

That was when she started to consider her doodles as fodder for a book.

“I showed it to my friend; we had always talked about writing a children’s book, and she kind of helped me figure out a plan,” Abrams says. “It’s a hopeful story in art and verse about a young cancer patient who visualizes what is happening to her body by explaining her feelings, and is strengthened by ‘helper heroes’ in the effort to regain her health.”

After approaching Tenley Circle Press in Washington, D.C. in April 2010, Abrams created a demonstration draft of the book to get a feel for public response.

“We decided if we could generate enough interest to get 500 orders of the book, we would start the design process,” Abrams said. “I kept a website when I was sick, through Lotsa Helping Hands, and I asked if they’d buy a book or donate or buy one for a local pediatrician or children’s hospital. We finally got to the 500 mark and started our design phase in January.”

The book has sold 1,000 copies since its publication in August, and has been well-received at hospitals and cancer centers worldwide.

“My mission is to get my book to doctors, clinics, hospitals and places where it can be a good resource,” Abrams says. “It’s been far reaching, including a cancer center in Jordan, but there are still many more people of all ages who could benefit from the book.”

Abrams says as far as her health, she feels back to her normal self, with the exception of eye and endocrinology treatments she still is undergoing at NIH. The Bethesda native, University of Maryland-College Park graduate and mother of three currently works at Starbucks in Chevy Chase. She says she is thinking about going back to teaching and working with sick children. She would especially like to give back to the center that helped nurse her to health, she says.

“When I started being treated at NIH, I thought I would really like to work there,” she says. “It’s awesome; it’s my happy place.”

mcortez@gazette.net

“My Body Needs Help,” Tenley Circle Press, $11.50, www.tenleycirclepress.com, $15 retail