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Teens get real Hollywood happy ending

Cancer survivors Alexis Hodges and C.J. Evans

Cancer survivors Alexis Hodges and C.J. Evans landed roles in the upcoming film, “The Fault in Our Stars,” which is expected to be a summer blockbuster.

You can always expect a lot of buzz when a best-selling novel is about to become a blockbuster movie.

But when “The Fault in Our Stars” opens on the big screen on June 6, 2 of Akron Children’s patients will be caught up in the buzz a bit more than the rest of us.

Cancer survivors Alexis Hodges, 19, and C.J. Evans, 17, have roles in the movie.

The Fault in Our Stars” is a love story between 2 young adult cancer patients, and Alexis and C.J. learned about the opportunity to become extras in the movie through the support group Akron Children’s offers its teen cancer patients. In perfect Hollywood casting, they play members of a cancer support group in the film.

They submitted applications and sent the filmmakers video of themselves. After hearing they were selected, they each spent a few long Saturdays in Pittsburgh late last summer shooting their scenes and getting to hang out with the stars – Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort, as well as John Green, the author of the book.

ediatric psychologist Laura Gerak (shown with Alexis and C.J.)

Pediatric psychologist Laura Gerak (shown with Alexis and C.J.) calls the book on which the movie was based “brutally honest.” Gerak and child life specialist Brenda Powell will take the teen group to see the movie together.

“I’m probably going to have to see the movie a zillion times because all my friends want to see it with me,” said Alexis, who was a fan of the book.

C.J., who had not read the book prior to being cast, was also looking forward to seeing himself on screen.

At one point during the shooting, Green texted C.J. to say, “My own scene got cut, but you have a close-up.”

Alexis has a few lines of dialogue.

“They gave me my own trailer and I got to talk to Shailene during breaks,” she said. “They would do my hair and make-up and then it was onto the set.”

The dozen young cancer survivors cast as extras have continued to keep in touch with the stars through texting, Facebook and Twitter.

Movie-making was actually more difficult than they imagined. With the first rehearsal beginning at 7 a.m, Alexis and C.J. had to leave Akron for Pittsburgh well before sunrise.

“It takes about 12 hours to do one scene,” noted C.J.

The real life drama

The experience was one of the better things to happen after they’ve made it through childhood cancer.

Alexis was diagnosed with leukemia at age 13 and became the first patient at Akron Children’s to undergo a bone marrow transplant by an unrelated donor. She has been in remission for 5 years.

C.J., a junior at McKinley High School in Canton, was diagnosed with a brain tumor at age 12.

Alexis and C.J.

Alexis and C.J. (shown with her dad and his mom) said their parents were equally excited about their movie-making opportunity.

“Finding out that I had brain cancer was a shock at first. Then I went from being scared to mad,” he said. “I was determined to beat it and tried to be positive.”

Alexis and C.J. couldn’t help but notice the differences between their onscreen cancer support group and their real one.

Known simply as “teen group,” Akron Children’s support group for teens with cancer is led by child life specialist Brenda Powell and psychologist Laura Gerak.

Akron Children’s group is mostly social, encouraging fun and friendship. Every Halloween, the teens dress up and pass out candy in the hospital. They also take an annual trip to Cedar Point and have a holiday get-together.

“C.J. was the baby of the group,” said Alexis, “and now he is our secretary.”

“Secretary? Leader sounds better,” said C.J.

Members come and go, but a core group seems to be a constant, said Gerak. After the death of a group leader, the group disbanded for a time before reorganizing.

“Sometimes they avoid talking about topics I know they should be talking about,” she said. “That’s where Brenda and I may step in.”

Mostly the group allows teens to support each other in ways that even the most well-meaning parent or adult caregiver cannot.

One line from the book that particularly resonates with Alexis and C.J. is when the character Augustus asks Hazel, “What’s your story?” and she automatically starts discussing her diagnosis. “No, no no,” he says, “your real story.”

“I like that attitude,” said C.J. “Yes, you have cancer, but you don’t make a big deal about it.”

Still, cancer is part of their history and their personal story moving forward.

Alexis and C.J. recall spending holidays in the hospital, hearing the litany of scary things that could happen to them as they signed on for treatment, and of becoming known as “the kid with cancer.”

On the positive side, doctors and nurses became family, and humor became an essential survival skill.

Both Alexis and C.J. want to someday become pediatric oncology nurses.

But first, they will have their 15 minutes.

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