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Signs of Hope: 'Beads of Courage' Helps Children Cope With Cancer Treatment

Conquest - Summer 2010

By Lana Maciel

Just how symbolic can a tiny bead be? It all depends on whom you ask.

In various cultures, beads are worn as symbols of protection and bravery. But for children going through cancer treatment, beads represent healing and significant
milestones in their fight against the disease.

Through “Beads of Courage” at MD Anderson’s Children’s Cancer Hospital, children document every step of their treatment by collecting a string of beads. Each individual bead represents a progressive step in the child’s treatment, such as getting blood drawn, going through a round of chemotherapy or having an overnight hospital stay.

“It’s a good coping mechanism, especially for those children who have a hard time with things like getting shots or taking medication,” says Anna Smith, outpatient
pediatric nurse in the Robin Bush Child and Adolescent Clinic. “It gives them an incentive to be brave and not go into a procedure kicking and screaming.”

Honoring treatment milestones

Laura Hubbard, 10, says she 
hopes to hang her  Beads of
Courage along the walls of 
her bedroom once her 
treatment for acute lymphocytic 
leukemia is complete.

At the beginning of treatment, children are given a string of beads bearing their name. Different colored beads, each representing a certain treatment or procedure, are added with each accomplishment. The most symbolic are the Purple Heart Bead, signifying the end of cancer treatment, and the glass Butterfly Bead, which is given to a child’s family if the child loses the battle against cancer.

When strung together, these beads are an artistic, visual roadmap of each child’s journey through treatment. Smith says it’s not uncommon to see children walking around the hospital with colorful strings several feet long, indicating their lengthy experience with cancer.

Beads of Courage is a national program that was introduced at MD Anderson in 2008, and it’s become quite popular among young patients.

“The children are really excited about getting their beads and adding them to their strings,” Smith says. “Whenever they complete a certain phase, they’ll come running to ask for their next bead.”

These beads might seem like small, insignificant objects, but for young patients at MD Anderson, beads are proud symbols of their fight against cancer.

© 2015 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center