Maya Silver was 15 when her mother, Marsha, a breast cancer survivor, was diagnosed with the disease in 2001. Now 27, she has teamed up with her father, Marc Silver, to write My Parent Has Cancer and It Really Sucks, a support manual for teens grappling with a similar ordeal. Due from Sourcebooks Fire on March 19, the guide draws on the Silver family’s experience and includes advice from medical professionals and stories of 100 teens whose families have been touched by cancer.
The Silvers wrote the book at the suggestion of Anna Gottlieb, a family friend who is the founder and CEO of Gilda’s Club Seattle, a nonprofit cancer support group that holds an annual essay contest for teens whose lives have been affected by the disease. “Anna sent me some of the teens’ essays about a parent’s cancer and said, ‘This should be your next book – with Maya,’ ” says Marc, who is also the author of Breast Cancer Husband: How to Help Your Wife (and Yourself) During Diagnosis, Treatment and Beyond (Rodale Press, 2004).
The book prospect appealed to Marc, but Maya had some reservations. “When my dad came to me with the idea, I wasn’t really keen on writing about the experience,” Maya recalls. “I had distanced myself from it, and until I began work on the book, I wasn’t 100 percent sold on the project. But my dad convinced me that this was the right recourse, and one I needed.”
As they began researching My Parent Has Cancer, a serendipitous comment made to Marc, an editor at National Geographic in Washington, D.C., led to a valuable source of information. “A colleague of mine had seen a public service announcement on TV about Camp Kesem, college student-run summer camps for children who have faced a parent’s cancer,” says Marc. “This news came at just the right time, since it was spring and camp was about to begin.”
In summer 2011, he visited and talked to teens at Virginia and Maryland locations of Camp Kesem (a nonprofit organization with 41 sites in the U.S.), while Maya, who lives in Colorado, visited a Utah location. Their candid conversations with campers, Marc says, were “a tremendous resource for us.”
Marc also talked to teens at The Gathering Place in Cleveland, which offers cancer support groups for kids, and tapped into the network of social workers, psychologists, and other medical experts that he’d established while researching Breast Cancer Husband.
“We talked to wonderful experts whose instincts were spot-on about cancer families,” he says. “They told us that every kid is going to react differently to a parent’s diagnosis of cancer, and families will have a wide range of experiences. Some kids will be embarrassed by the way a parent looks while undergoing treatment, some will wish it were the other parent who had cancer – these are all such real parts of the experience, and kids have to cope in their own ways.”
Having lived through this experience as a teenager, Maya was able to bring an informed perspective to My Parent Has Cancer. “Writing this book completely brought me back, and I realized I never really dealt with the situation at the time,” she says. “I was in denial. My sister Daniela, who is two and a half years younger, and I didn’t have any resources or a support group to help us know that all our reactions, like being scared and feeling guilty, were normal, and that we should talk about them. That would have been a big help.”
Sourcebooks Signs On
The Silvers’ book covers such issues as keeping lines of family communication open, dealing with stress, relying on friends, and seeking support. Its value was immediately clear to Sourcebooks senior editor Leah Hultenschmidt when she received the proposal from their agent, Lindsay Edgecombe of Levine Greenberg, in spring 2011. “The book called out to both Lindsay and me and begged to be published,” she says. “Every good proposal comes with market comps, but Lindsay, Marc, and Maya had difficulty putting them together. I looked, too, and found there was nothing out there like this book, and it struck me: ‘how can we not serve this need? Immediately after I acquired it, at least three people in-house told me they’d wished that they’d had this book as a teen. That affirmed to me that we really needed to be publishing it.”
Hultenschmidt notes that the Silvers’ manuscript needed minimal editing, given the writing credentials of each. “Marc’s a professional journalist, and Maya is an award-winning author [she won the Diane Vreuls Fiction Prize at Oberlin College in 2008], so they made my job easy,” she says. “And much of the book is in the words of kids themselves, so obviously we didn’t want to change any of that.”
Though the Silvers don’t yet have a second collaboration in the works, Maya notes that they “have quite a few ideas on the table.” Marc welcomes the prospect of another father-daughter effort. “It’s so good to have a collaborator like Maya you can rely on,” he says. “And it’s so nice to have someone to work with, since writing a book is a very lonely process. It’s nice to share the pain.”
My Parent Has Cancer and It Really Sucks by Maya Silver and Marc Silver. Sourcebooks Fire, $14.99 Mar. ISBN 978-1-4022-7307-0