Stem cell researcher, children’s book author and mother of four – and now Dr. Sarah Roxana Herlofsen is also a member of the Board of Trustees at Stiftung Juno Children’s Cancer Aid Foundation. Here, she shares her touching story with us. It is clear that she must have superpowers. We are pleased that she also uses them for our foundation!
It’s safe to say that I have three great passions in my life. Children, Books and Biology. It was already clear to me after graduating from high school that I wanted to work with these three topics. My authorship goes back to my childhood. Writing was my absolute passion in elementary school and my first story was published in the Kölner Stadtanzeiger when I was in third grade. Ever since the day I could read my own words in the newspaper, I’ve dreamed of one day writing my own book.
My interest in biology and medicine arose very early on and I thought about becoming a doctor for a long time. But the idea of not being able to help everyone and of losing people scared me because such fates affect me emotionally. I chose to become a biology and philosophy teacher so that I could explain the big and small mysteries of life to children. But already after the second semester, a case of cancer in the family changed my career for the first time. My grandmother got sick and the diagnosis of metastatic colon cancer had a very bad prognosis at the time. I clearly remember her being offered a revolutionary therapy. She was able to take part in a clinical study in which researchers tried to develop antibodies against the cancer cells so that they could be found and disposed of by the body. This was the beginning of personalized cancer therapy and an incredibly brave and spectacular thought at the time.
As a fresh biology student, I was enthusiastic about this brilliant idea and now I didn’t just want to convey knowledge, I wanted to create knowledge myself and switched to molecular biomedicine. Here I wanted to develop new medicines, achieve breakthroughs in clinical research and thereby save lives.
Many years in the lab followed and my specialty became clinical stem cell research. In 2013, I did my PhD at the National Hospital in Oslo, Norway. And again, a case of cancer in the family should steer my life in a new direction.
This time, my grandfather was diagnosed with incurable bladder cancer. I was very pregnant with my third child, in the middle of the last phase of my doctoral period and could no longer travel to Germany. The time was very dark and cloudy and I was afraid that he would never meet my unborn daughter. My other children were quite young and I started drawing pictures for them and writing little stories about cancer cells to explain why I was so sad. This open communication was incredibly valuable. Not only for my children, but also for myself. It was a great relief that I didn’t have to pretend, but was able to tell honestly what moved me. And the fact that the children knew that they could always talk to me and get honest answers made the illness less scary for them. That’s when I got the idea for my children’s book.
The book should be suitable for all children, regardless of diagnosis, treatment and patient. I wanted to use what I had learned to answer the questions of all children, whether they have a mother with breast cancer, or a grandfather with colon cancer, or maybe they have leukemia themselves. So this is where my commitment to children and cancer began.
Over the next few years I traveled a lot, visited children’s cancer wards and children as relatives, collected questions and testimonials, met with psychologists and doctors, cancer survivors and people who lost loved ones to cancer. More and more this book became my new baby and the subject of cancer became near to my heart.
I will never forget my first visit to the children’s cancer ward, when I was approached by a small patient who had just completed radiation treatment. This small, vulnerable, refined body. The smooth head and the skin reddened by the radiation. His mother, tired, exhausted, broken yet smiling desperately and whispering words of encouragement. I had just given birth to my third healthy child and could hardly stand the pain. That was probably the day I decided that I wanted to use my life to help these families with any means at my disposal.
In 2016, my first cancer book was published in Norway, and in 2019, my German book “Wie ist das mit dem Krebs”. It has now been translated into many languages and it still brings tears to my eyes to think of how many thousands of children around the world have read these books. The fact that the German Cancer Aid filmed my book and that we now have our own children’s site with free cartoons for all children who want to know what cancer is, was also a small dream that came true.
I am currently working on a picture book for smaller children, which will be published in Germany next year. And because these little people and their destinies are so dear to my heart, I am indescribably happy that I was given the opportunity to make my contribution here at the Juno children’s cancer charity. I hope that through my work for the foundation I can give a little hope, comfort, joy and help to these children and their families. I can’t wait to be on this journey.