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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, June 21, 2006

'Lion' spotlights perils of pediatric cancer

By John Kiesewetter
Cincinnati Enquirer


9 p.m. today and tomorrow


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Five kids fighting for their lives against cancer. Now that's riveting reality television.

"A Lion in the House," a four-hour documentary premiering today on PBS, is a powerful, unprecedented and unfiltered look at five Cincinnati area children and their families coping with the deadly disease.

Nearly nine years in the making, filmmakers Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar from Yellow Springs, Ohio, capture the emotional roller coaster of patient remissions and relapses since 1997 at the Children's Hospital Medical Center in Cincinnati.

Little Alex Lougheed fights over Barbies with her sister in their Cincinnati area home. Later she's listless from leukemia.

Teenager Tim Woods pukes on his shirt as doctors thread a feeding tube into his nose. You don't see that on "Grey's Anatomy."

"This is the first time somebody actually made a film that shows the nitty-gritty (of cancer). This is reality TV," says Judy Lougheed, Alex's mother.

"Most of the time you only hear these fluff stories, about how so-and-so had cancer, got some treatment, and they're all better now. So people think that if you have cancer, it's curable. And some of them are, but it doesn't always work out that way," she says.

But "A Lion in the House" is more than hospital beds and meds. Viewers will see birthday celebrations as well as the brain surgery; cookouts and amusement park trips along with the chemotherapy; and the family arguments and funerals. (Producers have asked reviewers not to reveal how many children die.)

Reichert and Bognar were invited to make the movie in 1997 by Dr. Robert Arceci, then head of the center's cancer division.

The doctor wanted a "Hoop Dreams"-like film to educate doctors, nurses and caregivers about families battling cancer. Instead, the four-hour film will be broadcast to a national TV audience, after winning awards this spring at several film festivals.

"We've been showing charts and tables for years, and we still can't quite convince people unless they've been touched by cancer what this is all about. This tells the story," says Arceci, pediatric oncology director at Johns Hopkins Children's Center in Baltimore. He worked in Cincinnati from 1994 to 2000.

The five families say they have no regrets giving the filmmakers access to the hospital and their homes around the clock, seven days a week to witness the suffering, uncertainty, isolation and second guessing.

"People who are going through cancer now can see what we went through. I'd do it all over again," says Regina Fields of Cincinnati. Her son, Al, was 11 when diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and a throat tumor.

"Cancer is a difficult subject most people don't talk about. When people hear someone they know has cancer, they tend to run for the hills," says Adam Ashcraft, whose brother, Justin, from Florence, Ky., appears in the film.

The film graphically shows the toll cancer treatments took on Justin, from swelling to a stroke, paralysis and coma. Not once did the family tell filmmakers to turn off the camera, says Justin's mother, Debbie Kenner.

"We never said 'stop' because this film was to help families with children with cancer. Everything in the film is the truth," she says.

The Ashcrafts and Lougheeds also didn't halt filming during family disagreements over how far to push for a cure. "I regret that I didn't say 'Enough is enough' (to doctors)," Kenner says in the film.