When Radiation Therapy Comes with a Dash of Unicorns and Daisies

A pediatric cancer patient recently received a fun surprise during a treatment session when her care team transformed the radiation machine overnight into a cheerful, smiling unicorn. The five-year-old patient was intimidated by the large machine and was having a challenging time during her treatments. She was so happy about the adorably decorated “unicorn machine” that she ran into the treatment room with excitement the next day. 

Radiation therapist Adeline Li stands next to radiation machine decorate like a unicorn.

Radiation therapist Adeline Li transforms the radiation machine into a unicorn for young patient.

Just a little bit of thoughtful creativity changed the young girl’s experience with her cancer treatments. The artist behind the whimsical unicorn, Adeline Li, finds that bringing a sense of fun and imagination to cancer treatments can make all the difference.

“Getting daily radiation treatments can be tiring and intimidating for patients of all ages. For our younger patients, it can be even more terrifying because they don't have a full understanding of the treatments,” says Li, a radiation therapist at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia. “Changing what’s scaring them into something familiar helps them tolerate and even look forward to their treatments.”

Before joining Columbia University Irving Medical Center in 2018,  Li worked as a tutor and school instructor. She was on the path to get her degree in early childhood education, but when her father was diagnosed with cancer she made the career switch. Li’s father had a positive experience with his care team while undergoing chemotherapy and radiation. As terrifying as cancer can be, her father actually looked forward to his treatments because of the “friendly faces” he would encounter.

“That was when I decided that I want to be that friendly face that people look forward to seeing,” says Li. “It is also comforting for patients and family when I share my own personal experience with them about my father, to let them know that I've once been in their shoes and that better days will come.”

Treatment masks decorated to look like superheroes

Superhero treatment masks created by Adeline Li.

Li has always loved arts and crafts, but never expected that she could translate this into providing care for cancer patients.

“I'm very grateful that I am able to use my craftiness to make their treatments a little more exciting and a little less scary,” says Li.

The “unicorn machine” isn’t the first time that Li has used her creativity to turn kids’ cancer treatments – a scary and stressful time for patients and their families -  into a positive experience. One of Li’s first patients after joining NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia was a young boy with brain cancer. During his treatments, Li learned that he loves Spiderman and decided to bring his favorite comic book superhero to life.

“On his last day of treatment, we decorated his treatment mask to look like Spiderman,” she says. “After seeing how excited he was, we’ve decided to try and decorate kids’ treatment masks so that they become something for them to look forward to as an ‘end-of-treatment’ incentive.”

“The treatment masks tend to fit pretty tight, and oftentimes patients get anxious before putting on these tight masks,” adds Li. “Turning them into superhero masks makes the kids feel like superheroes themselves. To me, they are.”

-Melanie A. Farmer