Without Beulah the Basking Shark, Sam the Seagull, Rocky the Otter and Corky the Cormorant, chemotherapy would have been a lot tougher for W.J. “Bill” Brutocao.
The 60-year-old La Cañada Flintridge, Calif., attorney gave life to the fanciful creatures in a children’s book he wrote during treatment. In a way, the whimsical characters that populate “The Basking Shark Rescue Team” may have helped rescue their creator.
|W.J. “Bill” Brutocao signs a copy of his children’s book. (Photo by p.cunningham)|
In 2005, a series of up-and-down prostate-specific antigen (PSA) test results drove Brutocao to see Kevin Chan, M.D., clinical assistant professor of surgery in the Division of Urology and Urologic Oncology. High PSA levels can indicate prostate cancer or other prostate problems.
By 2008, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. A computed tomography scan revealed enlarged lymph nodes. When the nodes were biopsied, they revealed astonishing news: He also had early Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
“I’m a very lucky guy to have prostate cancer,” said Brutocao. “Otherwise, the lymphoma wouldn’t have been discovered until much later.”
Under the supervision of Leslie Popplewell, M.D., clinical associate professor in the Department of Hematology & Hematopoietic Cell Transplantation, Brutocao stopped his prostate cancer treatment and started battling his lymphoma. He endured 12 rounds of chemotherapy over eight months in 2008.
While undergoing treatment, Brutocao noticed flyers for creative writing classes at City of Hope. He thought the process might be therapeutic, but “the last thing I wanted to do was write about my illness.”
As his strength returned, he reconsidered writing, but not about medical metaphors. He tackled something completely different: the fantasy world of a child.
The project had the backing of his medical team.
“Cancer treatment can be mentally and physically taxing,” said Popplewell. “Patients are often not able to work full time, and we recommend recreational therapy for our hospitalized patients to give them a different focus for a while. Creative outlets like painting or writing can be therapeutic in many ways.”
The intellectual property lawyer dabbled in writing poems, songs and scripts for more than 40 years, but this was his first foray into children’s literature, a genre suggested by his sister-in-law, a special education teacher.
In the book, a team of children must rescue Beulah, a shark caught in fishing nets in the harbor. “Without grown-ups getting suspicious, they must figure out a way to help her get unstuck so she can get out to sea again,” explained Brutocao.
Brutocao said his father-in-law invented Beulah decades ago, but he never wrote the story. The other California sea animals came from his own imagination, while the rescue team’s two young children were inspired by his 28-year-old son, who has Asperger’s syndrome, and his 33-year-old niece with cerebral palsy.
Now in remission from both prostate cancer and Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Brutocao continues attracting new readers, particularly among first-through–third graders. Critics also like the imaginative adventure that, as one put it, “emphasizes tolerance, an appreciation of nature and the value of understanding our differences.”
He already is working on a sequel: “Rocky and the Great Bird Race.”
Brutocao knows the cancer experience has transformed him. Before his diagnosis, he often thought of the future, when he would have time to do things he loved. “I no longer have this mindset of ‘someday,’” he said. “When you have cancer, the future is now.”
He dismisses his previous, serious law writing as “esoteric, arcane legal mumbo jumbo,” noting that few people would care about it. Children’s writing gave him a new sense of purpose.
“You’re only here for a little while,” he said. “You want to be remembered for something, and I’d much rather be remembered as the guy who wrote ‘The Basking Shark Rescue Team.’”