Good Guys and Bad Guys

Armed with courage and creativity, Kayson Umphress faced a courageous battle with cancer — and triumphed.

Feature Story
'Defeat the Cancer Cells' comic book cover art.
"The Defeat of the Cancer Cells" comic. View full size pdf. »

To Kayson Umphress, a 7-year-old boy diagnosed with a brain tumor, a cancer journey is filled with many unknowns — from seemingly simple blood draws, to MRI imaging, to surgery, to radiotherapy.

Radiotherapy is the use of high-energy radiation to destroy cancer cells’ ability to divide and grow. Kayson received 33 doses of radiation over seven weeks at Kaiser Permanente Interstate in Portland, Oregon. Like any patient, he had a lot of questions, including three big ones: What’s cancer, what’s radiotherapy, and do I really need to do this?

Kayson Umphress

Kayson Umphress, vanquisher of cancer and superhero.

His doctor, Tasha McDonald, MD, Radiation Oncology chief of service, is specially trained to care for children with cancer. She answered Kayson’s questions to prepare him for what he would experience. His parents, Cassie and David, also answered Kayson’s questions, and along the way, learned more about cancer than they ever imagined.

Healing through drawing

Where an adult with a serious disease might take up journaling to help sort through their feelings, the now first-grader chose a medium more suited to his age and abilities. He wrote and illustrated a comic book and named his masterpiece “The Defeat of the Cancer Cells.”

The graphic novel describes one’s cancer battle in simple terms. Healthy cells are the good guys who “work together to help your body do amazing things.” However, a big, bold “Uh-oh!” appears on the page when a good cell “makes a bad copy.” Of those cells, which are cancerous, the narrator exclaims, “They are bullies! They fight against your healthy cells and make you sick.”

Kayson knows a thing or two about how those bullies can make you sick — they gave him migraine headaches, low energy, and rapid mood swings throughout kindergarten before he was diagnosed with ependymoma, a tumor that affects the central nervous system.

Understanding the cancer journey

Comic book 'Defeat the Cancer Cells' cover art.

“The Defeat the Cancer Cells” cover art.

Kayson created the comic book to help him understand his own journey, but also “to help other children who are going through treatment like I did. Everything can be really scary when you don’t understand what’s happening,” he said.

“The Defeat of the Cancer Cells” helped make the youngster deal with a tough experience, as did the daily rock star treatment he received in Radiation Oncology. Like a champion, he burst through a rainbow of colorful streamers in the doorway each day, cheered on by staff and patients. In the treatment room, he snuggled with a Pokemon blanket from Dr. McDonald, and picked out the music he’d listen to while the invisible superheroes waged war inside his body.

Strong spirit, sweet smile

His radiation therapists — each trained to care for pediatric patients — remain awestruck by Kayson’s strong spirit, sweet smile, positive attitude, and resilience. And they agree that his comic book reflects Kayson’s ability to reduce very complex subjects into something that will help other children with cancer.

Receiving a cancer diagnosis and treatment isn’t easy for anyone, but Kayson’s mother is able to find a few high points in the experience. Kayson learned a lot of valuable life lessons, such as realizing that everyone has their own struggles. And he plans to create a series of comic books for children facing health issues.

It has been almost a year since Kayson’s last treatment, and there do not appear to be signs of disease. In comic book lingo, that wonderful news is worthy of a “Zap! Pow! Boom!”

Learn more about Kaiser Permanente Northwest’s commitment to quality cancer care at kp.org/cancer/northwest.