September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month … but it’s difficult, even for sufferers, to drum up the wherewithal to begin broaching the subject.
Having cancer as an adult is scary, and fraught with murky medical obstacles. Imagine how it feels when you’re a kid.
This is why, on behalf of the Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation, ad agency RPA created the Imaginary Friend Society, which kicks off with 20 lovely animated films that explore different cancer-related topics with warmth.
“It’s our goal to help the more than 4,600 children diagnosed with a primary brain or central nervous system tumor each year,” says Robin Boettcher, president and CEO of the Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation. “That’s 13 new cases per day. These films help us equip, educate and empower families throughout their journey by explaining difficult aspects of cancer care and giving children confidence and courage.”
The films can all be viewed on the Imaginary Friend Society website. They’re beautifully animated, with help from a slew of pro-bono partners, and feature friendly, approachable characters taking on topics that probably seem impossible, especially for parents.
Let’s start with an easy one. What is cancer? This story takes place on a pirate ship, led by a parrot named Captain Beakbeard … and his first mate Quincy, a tiny man who sits on his shoulder. (We are already less scared of cancer.)
There’s no condescension in sight. Beakbeard explains the role of cells in the body, illustrated with happy little bean-shaped pirates going about their business. He talks about what happens when a cell goes rogue (walk the plank!), then cancerous (mutiny ensues). He discusses treatments.
“You may not think you be tough enough to handle it, but just look at these little guys!” he exclaims, casting back to our friendly pirate cells, swordfighting like champions.
OK, so now a child understands cancer and is perhaps less afraid of what happens next. But what about scarier stuff, like chemotherapy, or losing hair? The Imaginary Friend Society doesn’t shy away from tough topics; it punches them in their ugly faces, like the brawny superhero that personifies chemo.
Which isn’t to say a child going through this process won’t often feel sad. That’s going to happen, regardless of how many informative cartoons they watch. Like any good friends, their imaginary ones have that covered, too.
Each video was produced by different animation, music and sound-design partners from all over the world, who were given a script from RPA and offered the chance to bring their own unique imaginary friends to life for a heartening cause. Other topics include blood transfusions, MRIs, discovering you have cancer in the first place, and going back to school.
“I’m so thrilled we could get so many real friends together to bring the Imaginary Friend Society to life,” says Jason Sperling, chief of creative development at RPA. “This colossal project was an absolute labor of love, worth the enormous effort it took to make it happen. To make these terrifying experiences a little easier for kids dealing with cancer, and to bring smiles to their faces during a truly difficult time, makes it all worth it.”
The concept of the Imaginary Friend Society stemmed from observing how kids with cancer get bombarded with confusing information and a wide array of invasive procedures—some of which, like chemo, probably make them feel sicker. Child cancer survivors sometimes use imaginary friends as coping mechanisms during treatment.
To ensure the Imaginary Friend Society stays top of mind, a motion-capture medical assistance service can turn any medical aid into an Imaginary Friend. Hospital-based AR experiences aim to make upcoming procedures feel less dire, and coloring books, posters, journals and stuffed animals are also available to keep Friends close.
A donation program ensures that still more services can filter through the Imaginary Friend Society, and we hope there’s more to come. (If “Dumb Ways to Die” taught us anything, it’s that even adults prefer dealing with tough truths through cartoons.)
The films launched on Sept. 24 during a special screening at Griffith Park in Los Angeles, where the Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation held a Starry Night 5K event. They will also be shared on the foundation’s social channels.
The Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation will also work with child life specialists, social workers and medical staff throughout the U.S., as well as other childhood cancer nonprofits, to bring the films to families undergoing treatment.
“It takes teamwork to fight this devastating disease, and many of our nonprofit distribution partners were inspired by children like those who will benefit from this film series,” Boettcher adds.