In a strange coincidence, teenage best friends Steve Vue and Mitchell Xayapraseuth were diagnosed with rare childhood cancers weeks apart in 2011 in Anchorage. This is the story of their friendship, their treatment and how they and their families, one of them Lao Buddhist and one Hmong animist, dealt with and explained what happened to them. (This series ran in the Anchorage Daily News in 2013, prior to the newspaper’s sale. The paper’s name was changed to Alaska News Dispatch.  This project was the recipient of a Blethen Award for writing about diversity and a Mike Berger Award for human interest writing.  It was also submitted to the Pulitzer contest. Photo by Marc Lester, posted with permission.)

Chapter 1: A bad feeling

Steve Vue’s cough wouldn’t go away. That’s how the story starts when he tells it.

Chapter 2: Luck goes bad

A couple of weeks after Mitchell Xayapraseuth’s best friend, Steve Vue, was diagnosed with a rare childhood cancer, Mitchell’s P.E. teacher at Service High School sent him to the nurse’s office…

Chapter 3: What spirits expect

Before the surgery, Steve’s parents prayed to his dead grandparents, asking them to keep him safe, he said. Now that the surgery was over, and had been successful, his parents had to repay his grandparents’ spirits for Steve’s good health…

Chapter 4: The worth of a boy

The pig was in the side yard in a dog crate. It was about the size of a golden retriever, with pasty skin and yellow eyes. A couple of children peered in at it, shrieking every time it scrabbled around. The acid odor of pig urine mixed with the smell of mud.. 

Chapter 5: Cancer’s ghosts

Mitchell’s required length of his stay at the temple wasn’t well defined. His family said it would be more than a week but less than six months. The only clear thing was that he had to do it. “If he don’t do it,” Pat, his mom, said one afternoon at her restaurant, “something will come back and haunt him.”