“I want you to close your eyes and imagine waking up on Christmas morning with all of the gifts your family and Santa Claus has brought you under the Christmas tree,” third grade teacher and author Natalie Cravens tells her students at West Chester Elementary in Chester County. “Now, while keeping your eyes closed, imagine being very sick instead and waking up in a hospital room void of presents on Christmas morning.”
Cravens reports that most of the students are crestfallen at this idea, as many of them have never previously considered as a possibility before. Here begins Cravens’s advocacy and story which she has written in her first book, A Reason for Hope, about her journey with pediatric Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
Hodgkin's Lymphoma is rare as far as cancers go and often first affects a patient’s lymph nodes by enlarging them. Cravens first noticed the change in her lymph nodes while talking on the phone with friend and went to the doctor thinking very little of the potential outcome. Little did she know that this would be the beginning of her experience with cancer.
Cravens, a lifelong resident of Henderson and raised in Chester County public schools, has strong ties to West Tennessee. Unsure of what career to pursue during her undergraduate years at Freed-Hardeman University, she began working as an interventionist in local schools. She fell in love with working with the students and eventually decided to pursue her masters degree and teacher certification at Freed. In addition to her education, Cravens has also volunteered in Jackson for the Make-A-Wish Radio-A-Thon for three years, telling her brave story over the airwaves for people to consider donating to the charity for patients like herself. Although she has been in remission for nine years and was diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma a year ago, Cravens has lived a full and joyful life with her family, friends, and students—but it by no means has been an easy journey.
While we all know of someone who currently is battling, or who has battled, cancer or another serious illness, we are often at loss as to what they are actually experiencing step-by-step. Cravens has eliminated that mystery, illuminating for the reader what a cancer patient actually endures, from the first learning of the diagnosis to the tediousness of chemotherapy treatments to the devastatingly brutal side-effects of medication and hospital stays. However, Cravens book is not simply a medical log of rote motions of the infirm. Instead, it also chronicles the emotional rollercoaster and relationship development between her and her family as they bear witness to their beloved's cancer experience.
A Reason for Hope displays the emotions that not only the patient endures, but the patient’s family, as well. One particularly heartbreaking moment chronicled in the book if after Cravens is done with chemotherapy but begins to lose her hair. Frustrated at the fact that she is losing what she views as one of the highlights of her physical appearance, she begins brushing her hair into the garbage can in her room at the hospital as her father, at a loss for words, looks on.
The book is, however, not all for tears and tissues. Cravens manages to keep her sense of humor throughout her battle and adds wit and a bit of sass at situations that could otherwise leave the reader speechless.
Any reader may glean insight into Cravens’ struggle, but she most hopes that young adult readers may find solace within the pages of her book. She understands that while critical illness is a difficult time, teenage years are often riddled with challenges that leave one at a loss about what to do. She says she hopes the book displays that it is okay to struggle and have doubts; this is a time to hold on to your faith and let others wrap you in love. While Cravens experienced innumerable challenges during her battle with cancer, she says that she would not alter any of the changes that she learned from her illness.
Cravens also acknowledges the fact that she would not be here right now had it not been for the excellence of care at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Now ten years into her journey with having, and then not having, cancer, she recently celebrated her ten-year appointment—her final one—with St. Jude. However, Cravens’ story with the hospital continues as she has had involvement with the marathon/5k each year as her twin sister, Nicole, has ran for her, creating a family event where the finish line becomes more symbolic to participants.
Additionally, Cravens has made an effort for her youngest of students to understand just a little of what contributing to the cause of pediatric cancer can do for the spirit. Instead of a class gift exchange, the students chose to send Christmas gifts to the children at St. Jude this past holiday season.
Ultimately, what started as a simple suggestion by Cravens’ caring mother to write a book about her experience as a therapeutic means of dealing with some big emotions has become a personal roadmap for those either with a loved one going through a health challenge or for those encountering a challenge themselves. Cravens hopes that the book will become a beacon of hope in one way or another for all who step into the journey of a young girl giving the fight of her life.
Megan Shulman is a transplant to the Jackson area after living all over the country. A former librarian, she now spends her time joyfully making donuts and fried chicken at a local convenience store. She is currently writing a book on her experience with electroconvulsive therapy.
Photography provided by Natalie Cravens.