'Beads of Courage' help young cancer patients track their battle

SEATTLE -- It's hard to imagine any upside to a child's cancer treatment, but local hospitals are giving their youngest patients something to look forward to with each visit.

Beads of Courage is a national program that tracks a child's cancer treatment by giving them glass beads for each milestone they reach. Each time a child gets a needle poke or an MRI, they get a bead to signify that part on their treatment journey.

Both Seattle Children's Hospital and the Procure Proton Therapy Center are participating in Beads of Courage. Renee Gaines, patient services manager at Seattle's Proton Therapy Center, helped bring the program to her patients so they could have a physical reminder of everything they've been through.

"It's like a 3D scrapbook," Gaines said. "The beads mark another page they're able to complete on their journey. It allows children and adults to stop for a moment and pause and say, 'I am recognizing you for going through another day in your recovery.'"

When Sophia Carlo of Seattle was diagnosed with ewing sarcoma at just 12 years old, she said the beads helped her cope with the treatment experience.

"I felt like it was my little reward or prize," she said. "They would say, 'You made it through one more. You're one step closer to the end of your treatment.'"

Today, Carlo is cancer free and has hundreds of beads strung together in a 12-foot long chain to detail everything she's been through. She's got beads for 17 chemo treatments, 82 blood product infusions, 75 days in the hospital, 47 clinic visits, 30 proton therapy treatments and much, much more. The program also gives out "act of courage" beads for especially challenging procedures and bumpy beads for "bumps in the road" like a fever or infection.

Carlo could not believe how many beads she collected.

"You never realize how much you've been through until its sitting right in front of you," she said. "It was kind of amazing."

Carlo said her favorite beads are the chemo beads.

"Because that was the hardest part of my experience, going in the hospital and not being to go outside for five days," she said.

In tragic cases where a child does not survive cancer, Gaines said the beads can offer some comfort to grieving parents.

"It's something for the parent to hold onto, to show the bravery the child showed during treatment," she said.

At Seattle Children's, medical assistant Samantha Gruber even tries to get infants involved in the program.

"They won't remember it, but growing up they can say, 'Look how many medical challenges I've overcome.'"

Beads of Courage is a non-profit organization based in Tucson, Ariz.