When Andy Whelan, of Lancashire, England, shared a candid photo of his 4-year-old daughter Jessica in the throes of pain from the cancer that was overtaking her young body, he knew that it wasn’t a sight that most people would want to see.
But that was exactly why he shared it: to bring awareness to the horrible disease that his daughter and so many other children suffer from, so that more might be done to save their lives.
According to Jessica’s GoFundMe page, the young girl has been battling stage four neuroblastoma, an aggressive cancer of the nervous system, for the past 12 months. This past October 5th, her doctors found that it had progressed further, despite treatment, and Jessica’s family was told that she had only months to live.
“As you may imagine our family has been rocked to the core by this latest revelation,” Jessica’s family wrote on her GoFundMe page. “We knew that this day could and most likely would come but we were certainly not expecting it to come so soon, especially not after her appearing to do so well after her last course of radiation treatment.”
On October 29th, as the effects of the cancer were ravaging Jessica’s body, her dad took the photo of her writhing in pain, and shared it on Jessica’s public Facebook page.
When I first saw the photo, I will admit that I had to look away for a second. Jessica is the same age as my youngest son, and I could see similarities in their size and stature. As a mother, it pained me to my core to see such a small, innocent person being tortured so horribly with pain.
It’s too much to bear to know that a child would have to live that way, even for one second.
But Jessica’s family must live with that reality every day, and her father shares what this reality is like in the Facebook post that accompanies the photo.
“This photograph was made in a moment that we as parents could offer her no comfort, her pushing us away whilst she rode out this searing pain in solitude,” he writes. “This sadly, for us as a family, is not a sight that we see rarely. This is now a familiar sight that we see regularly through each day and night, its frequency now more often. This is the true face of cancer, my baby girl’s blood vessels protruding from beneath her skin, a solitary tear running down her cheek, her body stiffened and her face contorted in pain.”
So, as painful as it is for us to see, we can’t just look away. We need to know what cancer really looks like. And we need to fight for a cure.
A quick Google search turns up some sobering statistics on childhood cancer. According to the Coalition Against Childhood Cancer, cancer is the number one disease to kill children. But since 1980, only ten drugs have been developed to treat childhood cancer, and only 4 percent of federal cancer funds go to childhood cancer research.
Only 4 percent. Let that sink in for a second. I don’t know about you, but that statistic stopped me in my tracks and made me downright angry.
Part of the reason that Andy Whelan shared a photograph of his daughter was because he knew that sometimes images are more powerful than words — and he was absolutely right in this case.
“I could try and use a thousand words to describe this image that we as parents are confronted with on a daily basis but these words would fall short of truly depicting the sight we see,” he writes in the post.
Whelan knew that the photo had the potential to upset some people — and, unfortunately, there were some people who less than tactfully expressed their discomfort in the comments section of the post — but what he wanted to do more than anything was educate, and get people off their butts to do something about this awful disease.
“With this photo I do not mean to offend or upset,” he writes. “I do mean, however, to educate and shock those that see it in its context. Perhaps by seeing this photo people not in our position will be made aware of the darkness that is childhood cancer, perhaps these same people may be able to do something about it so that in the future no child has to suffer this pain, so that no parent has to bear witness to their own flesh and blood deteriorating daily.”
As far as I’m concerned, Whelan does not need to apologize for one second. Sharing the photo was a brave thing to do — and if it pushes even one person to donate to cancer research, or contact an elected official to ask for more research to be done — then he has done a world of good.
But meanwhile, he and his family must live with the reality that their baby’s days are numbered, and that many of them will be filled with unrelenting pain.
“Please I beg of you, as a heartbroken father, it is too late for my daughter, but childhood cancer needs to be cured,” Whelan writes as he ends his post. “No family should have to go through this hell.”