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Bradley Hilltopics

Fall 2007 • Volume 13, Issue 4

A Mother's journey I A chance meeting I The journey begins I Frame and click

February 06

Derek was tearful as Cyndie tried to reason with him at the UC Davis Cancer Center on February 14, 2006.
She and Dr. William Hall explained that Derek should have a series of radiation treatments to shrink the
tumors spreading throughout his body and alleviate his pain.
Derek fired back: “I don’t care! ... Take me home ... I’m done, Mom! Are you listening to me? I’m done!
Photo © Renee C. Byer/Sacramento Bee/ZUMA

The Journey Begins

Two weeks later, Byer and Hubert visited with French and her son Derek Madsen. When they began the interview process, Derek had been through six months of chemo and radiation and was on the rebound; however, the emotional and financial impact of the disease was
affecting the family. “I had no idea what kind of cancer neuroblastoma was at the time, that it starts in the nerve cells,” said Byer. “We had
no clue what the ending was going to be when we started the story. In fact, it could just as well have been a happy ending as a sad ending, as far as we knew. It wasn’t until months later that we knew Derek may not make it.”

May 06

Cyndie was beside Derek almost around the clock
as he lost his valiant battle against neuroblastoma. This May 8, 2006, photo was selected for the traveling Pulitzer exhibit and ran in the New
York Times
as part of the Pulitzer photo series,
“A Mother’s Journey.” The series has been honored with an additional 15 awards, including the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism.
Photo © Renee C. Byer/Sacramento Bee/ZUMA

Byer said Hubert had previously researched a story on hospice for children, but the hospitals tried to give her the perfect patient, usually under the age of four, who smiles, doesn’t say anything, and doesn’t understand what’s going on. On the other hand, Derek was upset about his cancer diagnosis. He was an intelligent patient who didn’t just question his mom. He questioned the doctors and nurses, as well. He was prone to meltdowns and did not like going to the hospital, like any pre-adolescent boy. “We showed our readers a real child, and many wrote in and thanked us for that,” said Byer.

Walking the fine line between objectivity and emotional involvement in such a personal story was a challenge for Byer. She knew she could not become French’s best friend because she understood the importance of keeping a journalistic boundary between them. “Even though I was there for a lot of intimate moments of her life when very important decisions were being made, I didn’t want to interrupt that pattern,” said Byer. “I had to step back, be a fly on the wall, and let the scenes unfold. Human nature is to try to help. But it was more important that I step out of the picture instead of into it.” Derek lost his battle with cancer in May 2006. But throughout his courageous fight, Byer said he knew that she understood his plight and felt a level of compassion for what was happening. “He was a little boy who knew, as he said in his own words, that ‘I got it.’ He would
say to his mom, ‘Renée really gets it, doesn’t she?’”

Bringing an awareness of cancer’s devastating toll on a family’s emotional and financial well being made winning the Pulitzer more meaningful to Byer. As a result of the Sacramento Bee running the series July 9-12, 2006, Derek’s family received more than $40,000 to help with medical bills, rent, and other necessities. Today, French oversees a nonprofit corporation, Derek’s Wish, which financially assists needy families with sick children.

“Every journalist would love to win a Pulitzer, but to win it for a project that is making a difference in many lives is most important to me,” said Byer. “I’m personally grateful to Cyndie and Derek for opening their lives and hearts to let us tell their story in an effort to help others in similar heart-wrenching situations.”

A Mother's journey I A chance meeting I The journey begins I Frame and click