essays and articles by david g allen

WVU Offers Lessons in "Cancer Stories"


      If I sent you a one-hour video documentary about cancer, I doubt that you’d bother to watch it.

      If I attached a note saying Ken Burns gave it his “Thumbs up!”, then maybe you might.

      If I pasted a flashy, “Emmy Winner!” sticker on the video, then maybe you’d put it in the “When I get time.” pile.

      What would you do, though, if I sent you a one-hour video and told you that it will help you answer the age-old question, “What is the meaning of life?”

The men and women you will meet in “Cancer Stories” are the bravest of the brave; they personify courage and integrity better than any model that I know.  Please cherish the moments that you spend with them for they and their families have made great personal sacrifices to bring you their stories.

   David G. Allen
   "Cancer Stories"

      The video and its companion book are “Cancer Stories: Lessons in Love, Loss and Hope.”  Some of you have already seen it.  “Cancer Stories” premiered on WVPBS in December 2003 and has been re-broadcast.  The four stations owned by WV Media, which also owns The State Journal, also aired “Cancer Stories” (2004), uncut and commercial-free.

      Most of you, and nearly all of America, are not aware of “Cancer Stories.”  It is my intent here to change that.

      Cancer remains the most dreaded diagnosis.  As soon as the doctor utters the word, the patient’s mind starts asking, “How long do I have?”  Not only does cancer instantly confront us with our mortality but it also makes us realize that the treatment will be a long and grueling ordeal.

      I have long wanted to record the impact of the cancer diagnosis and the early days of the patient’s treatment.  Too often, we read only the testimonials written by cancer survivors.  We need these testimonials—for inspiration, and for science.  But testimonials do not tell the whole story.

      As we age, we lose loved ones to cancer.  In subtle ways, we harden, or perhaps callous, our emotions to protect us from the next loss.  It’s perfectly natural that we react this way.  But it is precisely for this reason that older, experienced reporters cannot truly report the cancer story.  So it came into my mind that the ideal reporter for this story should be the young, curious, and unjaded, journalism student. 

      I was appointed to the Advisory Board of the Mary Babb Randolph Cancer Center 2000.  From that vantage, I felt I had the standing to propose this project to West Virginia University President, David C. Hardesty, Jr.  The concept was simple enough.  Students from the Perley Isaac Reed School of Journalism would interview patients being treated at the MBRCC and WVU Press would publish their stories.

      The “Cancer Project”, as it was first called, was embraced across the WVU campus.  But it could not have happened without the support of eight wonderful cancer patients.  They are the men and women who have completely opened their lives to you and to the rest of the world.  They sacrificed their privacy so that you might have less of an ordeal when cancer comes knocking on your door.

      When I say the patients sacrificed their privacy, I mean exactly that.  The student reporters were not only invited into the exam room but they were also invited into the patient’s home.  It is this unique, fly-on-the-wall perspective that allows you the audience  to share each cancer story as if you were a member of the family.

      The doctors and medical staff at MBRCC are to be commended for the important roles they played in this project.  Before work began, the journalism students attended lectures on cancer, medical terminology, and treatment options.  Their extensive preparation allowed the students to be professionals on assignment.

      You will, of course, see the doctors in their role as doctors.  But perhaps, for the first time, you will also see the emotional rollercoaster that cancer doctors also ride.

      Thirty journalism students recorded “Cancer Stories” in print, photographs, and video.  The 220-page book comes with a DVD of the documentary.  In June 2004, the video documentary won the Midwestern Regional Emmy award in the Informational Programming category.  All of us who have worked on the project believe that the book will be heralded just as prominently.

      West Virginia University has garnered high praise from its peers in academia and healthcare.  “Cancer Stories” is being considered nationally as a teaching medium for medical students.  And Journalism schools across the country are now considering similar “real life” reporting classes for their curricula.

      To order your copy of “Cancer Stories”, please visit or dial 1-866-WVUPRESS. [1-866-988-7737]

 David Allen, a native and resident of Clarksburg, is a member of the Advisory Board of Mary Babb Randolph Cancer Center at West Virginia University.  WVU Offers Lessons in "Cancer Stories" originally appeared in the February 4, 2005 issue of the State Journal.



Copyright 1990-2005  David G. Allen