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Benson, Minn., native pens: 'Mama's Knight: A Cancer Story of Love'"

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Submitted photoTyson Cluever, left, of Benson was the inspiration for a children's book called "Mama's Knight: A Cancer Story of Love" that helps mothers with cancer explain the disease to their young children. The book was written by Cluever's friend, Aurora Whittet, who is a Benson native.5 / 9
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Submitted photo Aurora Whittet, right, with her late mother Sandra Lee Showalter.9 / 9

BENSON — When cancer strikes a young family it's hard to explain to toddlers that mommy is too sick to pick them up and play with them.

How can a preschooler understand that the cancer-killing medicine that could keep their parent alive is making them sicker-than-a-dog and the house needs to be quiet so they can sleep?

What can a mother say to their first-grader about being scared to die?

"I wish I would've had more energy or options to think about how to portray how I was feeling and why I was feeling like this," said Tyson Cluever of Benson, who was in her early 30s with two young sons when she was diagnosed with astrocytoma glioblastoma, a fast-growing brain tumor.

Cluever, who was treated for cancer in 2015, was the inspiration for a new book written by another Benson native, Aurora Whittet, that could help other young mothers who are battling cancer.

The recently released hardcover picture book, which will have a local launch party Saturday in Benson, is called "Mama's Knight: A Cancer Story of Love."

The book packs a powerful message by explaining the physical and emotional chaos cancer causes by using colorful artwork and words little kids can understand.

"I lost my mom as an adult and it was devastating," said Whittet, who currently lives in St. Louis Park. "I can't imagine how it would be for little kids."

When she learned that her high-school friend, Tyson, was battling cancer with two little kids in tow, Whittet said she wanted to use her skills as an illustrator and published author to "fulfill a need for Tyson and other moms."

Whittet sent rough drafts of the book to Cluever to make sure she was on the right track in depicting typical struggles of a young mom and her journey with cancer.

"I told her, 'you can ask me anything. People need to know cancer isn't fun,'" Cluever said.

The book is sweet and realistic with some frank language that young kids can appreciate.

A page with drawings of three colorful, fanged creatures says, "Cancer is like a million tiny evil monsters in my body, and I have to fight them off."

On a page with a girl holding a shield to ward off one of the monsters, Whittet writes, "My medicines are helping me kick cancer's butt and you are the knight that I fight for every day."

Cluever said Whittet's book is a "great accessible tool to lift some of that lack of control and anger off of you."

It also helps kids understand that cancer is "scary" without "running around acting scared," said Cluever, who has had positive results following her cancer treatment.

Family photos and kids' responses to questions can be put on pages to personalize the book to help kids communicate what they are feeling, Whittet said.

Woven into the dialogue there are also ideas for activities — including low-energy projects that can be brought to mom while she rests in bed or on the couch.

A page that has a place for "gag-proof" family recipes says, "Sometimes, my favorite foods even smell like farts and I gag, but here are some things I still like ..."

Cluever said cancer "tries to take so much from you" and a book like Whittet's can help bring some of that back by focusing on ways to "enjoy moments even when you feel super crummy."

At the bottom of several pages there are links to a web page ( Whittet developed where details for activities and printable craft pages can be found to supplement the book.

"Mama's Knight: A Cancer Story of Love," can end up being "kind of like a scrapbook for after the journey," Whittet said. "Hey, we lived through this thing and we're awesome."

Or it could be a "memento of the fight," said Whittet, who was 30-years-old when her own mother died of cancer in 2013.

Whittet said she toyed with using the word "hero" instead of "knight" to portray the kids in the book. But, she said, heroes always win and she didn't want to burden children with guilt if their mama didn't survive.

A knight, she said, fights the battle with a village. "I wanted that community feeling," Whittet said.

"Plus," she said,. "who doesn't look good in armor? Let's be real."

Along with getting the thumbs-up from Cluever while the book was in the development stage, Whittet also consulted with the oncologist who treated her own mother to make sure she was using the right terminology.

"I needed someone who was way smarter than me," Whittet said, adding that the oncologist was inspired by the book and eager to give it to her patients.

There were 1,500 copies of the book printed and nearly 300 were donated to cancer organizations, including Minnesota Oncology and an angel foundation that helps families going through cancer.

The response has been "phenomenal," Whittet said. "Realizing what you created can actually help people is really amazing."

Whittet is already beginning her next book geared for dads with cancer that will be called "Daddy's Ninja: A Cancer Story of Love" that is expected to be published by fall of 2017.

Book signing

BENSON — Aurora Whittet, author of "Mama's Knight: A Cancer Story of Love" will be signing her book Saturday in Benson during a local launch party for the newly released book.

The event will be held from 11 a.m. to noon at Go Set Ready Coffee located at 601 Church Street in Benson.

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for 35 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

(320) 894-9750