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Video games a bridge to normalcy

Annual Report - Winter 2013

By Sara Farris

Power-up. FPS. RPG. MMO.

This may sound like a foreign language for many, but for 18-year-old Steven Gonzalez, they’re words that helped get him through cancer as a sixth grader.

Facing a slim survival chance against an aggressive form of acute myeloid leukemia, Gonzalez found himself isolated from his school and friends as he received intense treatment. When a cord-blood transplant required a lengthy inpatient stay at MD Anderson Children’s Cancer Hospital, he turned to video games to help cope.

Steven Gonzalez (right), a five-year survivor of acute myeloid leukemia, 
and Ian Cion, director of MD Anderson's Arts in Medicine Program, 
turn artwork and plots created by other pediatric patients into a digital 
Photo: John Everett

“I learned that as a cancer patient the one thing you want but can hardly get is normalcy. Just to talk about and focus on something normal, like video games, and not cancer is all you really want,” Gonzalez says.

While an inpatient, the young teen learned how to make video games and animation. He soon developed a video game about beating cancer and began sharing that game with other cancer patients.

Now a five-year survivor, Gonzalez uses his experience to help other young patients facing cancer. He focused his Eagle Scout project on collecting video games for kids in the hospital. He also founded a non-profit organization, The Survivor Games, which connects teen cancer patients through gaming and social networking.

In August, he presented his concept of healing through video games at a TEDx event (which offers opportunities to stimulate dialogue around “ideas worth spreading” at the local level) in Sugar Land, Texas.

“Anyone can be ripped away from the world they know, but through the healing power of art and video games, I believe we can help create a bridge between the cancer world and non-cancer world for young patients,” Gonzalez says.

Artwork created by pediatric cancer patients under the guidance of Ian Cion is on exhibit at the Museum of Health and Science in Houston through Sept. 2, 2013.

Program nurtures young patients

By Sara Farris

When Ian Cion dreams up an idea for a project, he dreams big.

Ian Cion
Photo: John Everett

Since joining MD Anderson Children’s Cancer Hospital as director of the Arts in Medicine Program, Cion has collaborated with hundreds of pediatric patients and their families on large-scale projects. These have included constructing an 8-foot-tall Tree of Life made of paper and beading, painting a live elephant and horse, and creating a digital mural for a construction wall.

It’s no wonder that when he met childhood cancer survivor Steven Gonzalez, the two immediately made a connection. 

Gonzalez’s skills with animation and 3D computer models have allowed him to collaborate with Cion on another artistic project — an animated feature film. The two work together turning artwork and plots created by other patients into a digital story.

“I’m interested in making art with patients that is grand in scale and requires teamwork between patients and families,” Cion says. “Working on these projects provides our patients with a chance to be part of something big and can shift their sense of identity from being a patient to being an artist.”

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