Beaded necklaces are badges of courage for young cancer patients

October 15, 2015


To some people, seeing red connotes anger. To others, passion.

To many a young cancer patient, though, the meaning is crystal clear: Red symbolizes a blood transfusion.

Thanks to a program called Beads of Courage, the meaning and power of color have been harnessed to transform a long, painful journey into an artistic expression of endurance and success. The Children's Hospital at Saint Peter's University Hospital in New Brunswick, N.J., recently joined more than 200 other hospitals around the world in offering Beads of Courage to its pediatric cancer patients.

A young cancer patient starts his Beads of Courage necklace at the launch ceremony for the program at The Children's Hospital at Saint Peter's University Hospital in New Brunswick, N.J.

"Day by day, we see the trials and stress that these families go through, getting chemotherapy, losing their hair, time away from schools and siblings, parents being separated from the other children," said Irina Mariano-Brown, a social worker at the hospital. "This was a way to honor the journey, the triumphs and victories these children and their families have come through."

Beads of Courage was founded in 2004 by Jean Baruch, a pediatric oncology nurse in Arizona who has been the organization's director ever since. More than 60,000 children participated in the program in 2014 at 250 hospitals in the United States, Canada, New Zealand, Japan and the United Kingdom. Other CHA members participating in the program include Lourdes Women's Center in Paducah, Ky.; Mercy Hospital St. Louis in Chesterfield, Mo.; Essentia Health St. Mary's in Duluth, Minn.; CHRISTUS Santa Rosa Medical Center in San Antonio; and Dell Children's Medical Center in Austin, Texas.

Members of the Rutgers University men's lacrosse team visit with a patient at the launch of the Beads of Courage program. The team raised &5,500 for the program and has pledged ongoing support.

Though the program is most often associated with pediatric cancer, young patients with blood disorders, cardiac conditions, burn injuries and chronic illnesses have participated, and there is a pilot program for adult oncology patients. By the end of treatment, the patient has created a work of art, a visual record of the pain, obstacles and hurdles that they've overcome and a new language they can share with other survivors or teach to their friends, classmates and relatives.

The goals of the program are to decrease illness-related distress, depression, anxiety and social withdrawal and to increase coping strategies for patients and their families.

"The beads are to the children as a badge of honor is to a soldier," Mariano-Brown said.

Patients receive a different color or size of bead for each procedure or milestone. Some examples:

  • A gray bead for a dressing change
  • Magenta for an emergency room visit
  • Beige for a biopsy
  • White for chemotherapy
  • Black for a needle poke
  • Light green for a test or scan
  • Red for a blood transfusion
  • A purple heart for completion of treatment

"After 100 clinic visits, they get a special bead," said Dr. Stanley Calderwood, division chief for pediatric hematology-oncology at St. Peters. "They could replace those 100 beads with the one, but I suspect they'd just be added."


The Children's Hospital at Saint Peter's tried for years to raise money to cover the program's start-up costs of training for hospital staff and buying the beads. Help arrived recently from an unlikely source: the men's lacrosse team from Rutgers University.

The team and hospital worked with the Vs. Cancer Foundation, which matches organizations in need of funding for children's cancer programs with athletes seeking a way to give back. Vs. Cancer has worked with youth leagues and teams at the high school, college and pro levels.

The lacrosse team raised $5,500 at a fundraising game last season, then decided to donate it to Saint Peter's for Beads of Courage. Team members attended the program's launch ceremony, when they visited with patients and pledged ongoing support. At any given time, 60 to 80 children receive cancer treatment at the hospital, and all are encouraged to join Beads of Courage.

"It's very gratifying to me to take a child with a diagnosis and return them to health," Calderwood said. "Cancer is one of the few conditions where doctors are aiming for a cure, rather than control of symptoms. When the child is done with the therapy, they grow up and grow old. "

And if they string their Beads of Courage, they'll have a masterpiece to share with their grandchildren about a long, hard, but ultimately triumphant journey.


Copyright © 2015 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.

Copyright © 2015 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.