Fort Bend Businessman Creates Comic Books For Young Cancer Patients

By Ryan Spencer –

“In one diagnosis, their lives and their families’ lives instantly got put on pause. While there is plenty of information to research, so much of it is presented clinically that it’s often cold and impersonal. We wanted to do our part to change that,” said Christopher Hill, a communications specialist whose company, 180 Messaging, assists companies and campaigns with clarity of thought.  Hill and his team take complex issues and narrow them into easily understood pieces.  Approaching the subject of kids and cancer, they decided to use comic books as the medium.

Cancer is one of the most pervasive diseases in the United States. Globally, it is estimated that two out of every five people will be diagnosed with a form of cancer at some point in their lifetimes. It affects everyone, from our elders to those too young to speak. In fact, in 2017, over 15,000 kids were diagnosed with cancer. The amount of new information young people must process is staggering. Add to that the pressures of growing up with a disease that often affects kids going through puberty and interferes with their social lives, and the already difficult road can seem impossible.

“Comic books are easily digestible and can educate both through the conversations and the visuals,” said Hill.  “Kids are not intimidated by them, and they can be written so that adults can learn from them as well. Ultimately they are sequential information graphics.”

When Hill presented the idea to The Patient Advisory Council for Teens (imPACT) at The University of Texas MD Anderson Children’s Cancer Hospital, he found a very receptive audience — with a catch. The kids from imPACT had to green-light the project. If they were in, the hospital would support the project; if not, the project wouldn’t move forward. The teen council is a group of MD Anderson teen patients ages 13 to 18 that works to improve the hospital experience for pediatric patients.

“I have pitched projects to CEOs and political figures in Washington, but I have never been as nervous as I was in that presentation,” said Hill. “Once I stopped talking, they couldn’t stop. In fact, it was their idea to move from one book to five.”

In that meeting, it was decided that if this project was to be successful, it needed to cover the entire comic book experience: diagnosis, treatment, remission, relapse and survivorship. The kids committed to sharing their stories, their experiences and most importantly, their feelings throughout.

“These are their stories. Yes, the books are packed with researched information, but the narrative came from the kids. It was our job to weave it all together.”

Still, they had one final hurdle to overcome: financing the books. MD Anderson agreed to provide access, but Hill agreed to find the financing. He didn’t want any money coming out of the charity. His team considered using Kickstarter to fund the project, but very early in their exploration, several companies expressed an interest in being a part of the process. Ultimately, the Houston Area Chevy Dealers stepped up to underwrite the entire series, all five books.

“There is no way to overstate how important their contribution has been,” shared Hill.  “They probably aren’t going to sell any cars from this, and they knew that, but they wanted to help the kids. That was their priority. Craig Desert, Houston Area Chevy Dealers President, even sat in on some of our meetings. That’s commitment.”

With the funding set, it was time to sit down with the kids. For two years, Hill met with them monthly to talk about the project. From lighthearted experiences to the most heart-wrenching ones, they’re all covered in the books. The kids held nothing back. They discussed how they handled the physical changes, the emotional difficulties of being away from school for long stretches, even the struggles with family members, especially parents. Perhaps most difficult was book number four: Relapse.

“Relapse is the fear hanging over everyone’s head, all of the time. Remission is just walking a tightrope. I wasn’t sure about including the subject, but they insisted. One of the kids told me that it had to be there; otherwise, we would just be publishing part of the story.”

The goal, both at the beginning and throughout, was to shorten the learning curve through the entire process. While everyone’s cancer experience are different, there are some commonalities that would help kids if they knew to expect them. There are also things that blindside almost every teen patient.

“Here you are, a teen with all the baggage that brings, and you’ve been diagnosed with cancer,” said Hill.  “Devastating. Now, almost right away, you have to decide if you want your eggs or semen frozen so you could have a family in the future as radiation could make that difficult without the freezing process. Imagine that. Maybe you haven’t even had your first kiss yet, and this is dumped in your lap. We talk about that and other things like that to help kids and their families prepare.”

Still, they made sure that it wasn’t a stale presentation. It needed to have humor, and all of the kids from imPACT wanted it to match their particular style of snarky humor.  “These kids are hilarious — as sarcastic as you get, which is right up my alley,” said Hill.  “They made it very clear that we needed to make them laugh throughout this experience.”

The project has been a long one, both going through the approval process and emotionally. Three of the kids passed away before the final book was printed, the emotion clear on Hill’s face as he tried to talk about them.  “They are all amazing heroes. The ones you are referencing were so influential to this process. So much in the stories are their suggestions. I’m just proud to have known them, and if there is any meaning in their passing, it is the knowledge that they will be helping other diagnosed kids for a very long time.”

The individual books are being given to families and individuals who have been diagnosed or who are in another cycle of the disease.  “I am excited to be part of imPACT and really enjoyed working on the comic book series,” said 17-year old Mario Quezada. “Being able to share our stories in such a creative way meant a lot.”

This summer the final book arrived at MD Anderson. It was a bittersweet moment for Hill.  “These kids were amazing to work with. So smart, caring, funny, nearly any positive adjective you could use. All of the massive number of hours writing, emailing, negotiating, etc., all became worth it when I would see the smiles on their faces as a new book came out. They see the story they provided or the topic they proposed presented, and they know they are responsible, that they will be helping those they do not, and may never, know. It was an honor developing this project with an amazing team of creators and kids who have changed my life.”

And as in every good story, these books have a moral.  “This is about a team from Fort Bend County, Texas, helping cancer patients from all over the globe tell a story of inspiration, education and humor from some amazing kids.”