The ASRT's Caring Tree brings cancer community together

December 18, 2018
by Sean Ruck, Contributing Editor
Shel Silverstein’s book “The Giving Tree” has been a source of contention since its introduction in 1969.

On one side, detractors believe it’s depicting an abusive relationship. Some of those on the other side champion the book as a lesson in environmental responsibility. Recently, the American Society of Radiologic Technologists introduced a tree with a name reminiscent of Silverstein’s best-known work, but the response has been undeniably positive.

ASRT’s “Caring Tree” was unveiled at this year’s annual Radiation Therapy Conference which took place in late October in San Antonio, Texas. The Society’s tree in this case was actually a wall 13 feet wide by 8 feet tall which was adorned with the silhouettes of about 400 leaves. Conference attendees, vendors and even passers-by were welcomed to fill out a leaf to give thanks to a mentor, to honor a loved one who was diagnosed with cancer or to celebrate their own personal milestones in their fight against the malady.

The tree replaced the interactive wall from 2017. That wall was focused on medical professionals, giving them a chance to write down and share why they were passionate about the field of radiation therapy. This year’s efforts looked to increase the inclusivity since there are so many people and stories involved in cancer treatment.

The Caring Tree not only includes the leaves where people can share their message, but the trunk is crafted of key words related to cancer care woven into a visual patchwork. The installation obviously struck a chord. Of the 400 leaves, roughly three quarters were filled in by the conference’s conclusion. We spoke with Natasha Hadrych-Rosier, Radiation Therapy Manager at ASRT and the person who brought the idea to the table, to learn more.

She said creating the tree, like treatment, is very much a collaborative effort. Many clinics have some sort of patient-centered completion ritual and some may have trees of their own. “When a patient completes treatment, it’s kind of bittersweet,” she said. “They’re done, they’re super happy, but there’s the wait and see about whether the treatment is effective.”

Having a completion ritual – especially one as life-affirming as a tree flourishing – helps to buoy optimism and provide a little more positive energy for recovery, and she saw that concept in practice firsthand.

“The inspiration came from a tree created in a clinic I worked at. One of our patients made a tree and they put pink ribbons on it. Patients had the option to sign a ribbon on a tree as they passed a milestone in their treatment,” said Hadrych-Rosier.

The idea stayed with her. After all, trees have cycles of renewal, with life and energy returning each spring. That idea is a comfort to people going through hard times or difficult treatments. The tree also represents our society in a way. Even though one person may be directly affected, there are all these branches from them and having strong support, strong roots, is a blessing.

Hadrych-Rosier saw people from many walks of life seemingly inspired by that idea, or at least wanting to connect with a community familiar with the journey they or someone they know went on. “In at least one way, through someone we know, someone we love, someone we care about, we’re all touched by cancer. So some of the hotel staff, some event staff, people staying at the hotel ... wanted to sign the tree because they were emotionally compelled on a personal level and wanted to express themselves,” said Hadrych-Rosier.

She also added her own message to a leaf. “It was an emotional thing for me too. I love working in my field, love my current role, but at the same time, I miss working with my patients. When I first showed up before the conference opened, someone had filled in one leaf and it was so beautiful seeing that first leaf.”

Due to the response at the conference, the Caring Tree was transported back to ASRT headquarters, where it’s back on display with some still-empty leaves waiting for more stories.