"We stop looking for monsters under our beds when we realize they're inside of us." -- Jordyn Berner
Having worked as a consultant to a pediatric oncology service, I can tell you that a) kids surprise you and b) cancer made a lot of very strong kids even more capable because adversity really does force you to make some decisions, and fairly quickly. Really, what we’re talking here is life and death.
The thing is, cancer isn’t the only horrible thing kids deal with in real life. Real kids in terrible situations—countries under siege, at war—cope with issues of life and death all the time. When they’re forced into it—when, say, the Nazis show up at the door to march them to a death camp as happened to my dad—kids grow up in a hurry, or they die.
When push comes to shove, I tend to believe in a teenager’s resilience and resourcefulness. Sure, some kids will just shrivel up and be unable to cope, but so will many adults. I don’t think there’s anything peculiar to an adult that necessarily makes him a smarter or more capable individual when it comes to survival, other than the fact that he has lived longer, with more life experience to draw on.
But kids, the smart ones, they learn fast, and we get to see Alex’s mindset change both quickly and very radically because she’s forced into making decisions right off the bat: do something for Jack, or not; take Ellie, or leave; go to the rangers’ station or her car; trust Tom, or not; tell him about her cancer, or keep mum; leave the Waucamaw or stay; etc., etc., pop, pop, pop, one decision right after the other.
Sure, her cancer—the monster gobbling up her brain—is the most frightening thing she’s still got to deal with because it can kill her at any time, and she has absolutely no control over it. In part, I think this issue of who’s in control is why she’s so focused on being able to take care of herself before the EMPS hit: all that making fire, finding water, knowing how to forage, etc. Mastering all that gives her the control that the cancer takes away. In fact, that is something we always tried to help kids with cancer or other illnesses, including psychiatric ones, focus on: work on what you can control rather than wasting energy on what you can’t, and become as competent as you can.
And here’s what I think: my own personal feeling is that if Alex hadn’t had Ellie to be responsible for and worry about (and be pissed at) from the get-go? That might have killed her right there. Alex survived because she had to think about someone other than herself.
So, in a way, having cancer gives her the strength to keep fighting. Of course, the irony here is that her monster—that cancer—actually saves her life in the beginning, and is crucial to her survival throughout the course of the trilogy. Alex knows what it is to face death; she’s lost everyone she loves; and she understands what she can master if she tries. Simply giving up just isn’t in her repertoire.
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