Katrina Dank ’20 Authors and Illustrates Children’s Book to Help Ugandan Youth Understand Cancer

Katrina Dank meets with mentor in Uganda

Katrina Dank ’20 has always loved a good creative science project.

As far back as middle school in Bellingham, Washington, Dank was interested in the challenge of conveying complex information in comprehensible ways. Whether explaining cellular respiration, photosynthesis or stoichiometry, “my poster projects were beautiful,” she says, decades later. While at Pomona College, Dank crafted simple study sheets as an organic chemistry mentor so her mentees could develop a conceptual understanding of the subject.

In similar fashion, the former chemistry major and track athlete’s latest – and most ambitious – science project stands to help thousands of children halfway around the world understand a more disconcerting topic: cancer.

Currently a medical student at the University of Washington, Dank spent this past summer in Kampala, Uganda, as part of the institution’s flagship Global Health Immersion Program. The voyage wasn’t Dank’s first to Africa, having studied abroad in Cape Town, South Africa, in 2020 through Pomona College’s Globalization, Environment, and Society program. “I had the best six months of my life studying in Cape Town,” she says. “I made amazing relationships and confirmed that I really want to work internationally in any capacity I’m able to and able to ethically.”

In Kampala, Dank set root at the famed Uganda Cancer Institute. There, she learned how prevalent the disease is among the population, as well as the ways outreach groups promote prevention strategies in communities with limited resources.

It wasn’t long before Dank identified a need.

“All their materials were aimed at adults,” she says. And, text-based.

Doctors at Ugandan pediatric oncology clinics can see anywhere between 25 and 75 patients a day, Dank says, and unlike clinics here, those in Uganda don’t have appointment times. It isn’t uncommon for patients to spend all day in a waiting room with nothing but time on their hands.

Dank wanted to give those patients something to do – they could read more about the disease.

Like the science posters she crafted in middle school, Dank set out to create an image-based children’s book explaining not only what cancer is and where it can grow, but how to identify common symptoms and why getting treatment early is imperative. “I wanted to normalize the patient care experience by having stigma-reducing statements,” she says. “It was an opportunity to spread information to children and have them educate adults in their lives.”

In addition to writing the text, Dank drew the pictures, using Ugandan landmarks and everyday sights to relate to the country’s youth. The primary visual analogy for the book, Dank says, revolves around cells on motorbikes and cars disobeying the roadside police checkpoints that children see throughout the country.

At the end of the book, Dank added an eight-question quiz to test readers’ retention.

The result: Understanding Cancer: Cells Out of Control.

Five weeks after first putting pen to paper, Dank’s work was met with overwhelming support.

With the help of the Uganda Cancer Institute, the 30-page book was translated into Luganda, the most spoken language in the capital city. Another organization hired translators to create Acholi and Swahili versions.

The book was distributed to a handful of outpatient and inpatient clinics for their waiting and playrooms. Patient hostels near the Uganda Cancer Institute wanted some, too. Crucially, the Uganda Child Cancer Foundation, with its focus on cancer awareness and support, coveted copies for its Children Caring About Cancer program, which has clubs in close to 240 secondary schools and could send those students to read the book in primary schools.

Dank printed 20 books to leave in Uganda before returning home.

By her estimate, there was enough demand to print hundreds more.

“Doctors can be mistrusted,” Dank says. “But children are trusted by their parents, and not only are they enthusiastic learners, but they’re trusted by community members. They like to share information, they learn easily, they change their attitudes and offer critical perspective.”

Dank intends to launch fundraising efforts soon to raise money to print another 500 books and hire experts to translate the text into four more languages.

Ideally, Dank says, the fundraiser generates enough to cover a professional study of the book’s efficacy.

“A lot of the problems physicians face with care in Uganda is that people don’t understand what their illness is or what causes it,” she says. “They only want to present to hospitals at the last moment, which for many requires significant travel and financial resources, after they’ve exhausted all potential causes. It could be a curse, or something to be treated with natural herbs. But with cancer, you’re just letting the cells multiply further until they metastasize, so there’s a huge issue with the timeline.”

“It was important to try to communicate a medical, scientifically understood concept that you need to get treatment for,” she adds. “The book is not denying their beliefs, but providing a scientific basis they can rely on so there's a huge opportunity for improving outcomes by encouraging early presentation.”