July 27, 2023

16 Candles, My Cancer and The Khmer Rouge?

If I had another blog that was not about cancer, I would probably write this post there.  But I don’t.  I’ve got this blog and am happy to have you as my readers.  I’m not writing about cancer today, so if that’s what a want to read about, check out the archives. If you’ve been living with cancer for a while, like me, and want to think about the world beyond, have a read:

In 1984 I was a 12-year-old sixth grader waiting for boobs and hoping someday to become Molly Ringwald kissing Jake Ryan on a table of over my birthday cake.  Sixteen Candles came out that year, and so did the Killing Fields.  One of these flicks became my all-time favorite movie.  Sorry Molly, you’re cool but you didn’t win.

The Killing Fields is based on the true story about an American reporter, played by Sam Waterson, and Cambodian photojournalist Dith Pran.  It takes place in the 1970s in Cambodia during the reign of the Khemr Rouge, a communist regime that murdered over one-seventh of the population.

Growing up as a Jewish girl in Pittsburgh, I was no stranger to the concept of genocide; the Holocaust was all we talked about in Sunday school and Hebrew school.  I was also inundated with info about the oppression of Soviet Jews.  I had a Bat Mitzvah buddy in the USSR, a girl my age who was not allowed to practice her religion, and I drove daily past signs on neighborhood synagogues that said Save Soviet Jewry (though for years I thought they said Save Soviet Jewelery and imagined massive rummage sales taking place in basement social halls.)

Oppression was pounded into my head.  But it never took place in tropical climates.  It was about Russians waiting in breadlines or villages burnt to the ground in freezing Eastern Europe when my grandparents were still in their 20s.  Watching the Killing Fields blew my sheltered little mind.  The Khmer Rouge was shooting innocent people in the streets and murdering whole villages during the time I was 2 - 7 years old.

I watch the Killing Fields every five years or so.  With each viewing I learn more about the complexities or war, and the role reporters play in exposing atrocities.  And I’m reminded of my moral obligation as a citizen to be watchdog and agitator.

I feel a bit challenged (in a good way) by what to do with my professional life these days.  There’s a world beyond cancer and I want to use my time and smarts to impact it in the best way possible.  I read yesterday that an international tribunal found guilty the Khmer Rouge torture-chief Duch, and sentenced him to 35 years in prison.  It’s only a small, imperfect gesture in the impossible mission to bring justice to an incredibly unjust piece of history.  This summer, I’m denigrating my mind with reruns of Jersey Shore, eating farmer’s market food, and reading good books.  But mostly I’m brainstorming how to organize my life to be of use in big ways that matter.  I’ll keep you posted on what I figure out.

If you want to read about cancer care, check out my book Everything Changes: The Insider’s Guide to Cancer in Your 20s and 30s. If you want to learn more about the Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge, check out this reading list from the Christian Science Monitor.

Post to Twitter Post to Facebook


  1. ChemoBabe Says:
    July 27th, 2010 at 4:25 PM

    it is kind of about cancer though. because you are contending with the reinvention of self that is a part of survivorship. you are looking at how to make a meaningful life for yourself. of course these are things non-survivors must deal with too, but for us, i believe there is a different flavor, a different set of issues and urgencies.

    let me know if you want to go to graduate school. you might find my next research project interesting.

  2. Tweets that mention Everything Changes » 16 Candles, My Cancer and The Khmer Rouge? -- Topsy.com Says:
    July 27th, 2010 at 4:36 PM

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Kairol Rosenthal, Megan Carpenter. Megan Carpenter said: RT @Kairol: My first blog post after a long break: 16 Candles, My Cancer and The Khmer Rouge. http://ow.ly/2hrMw #cambodia #cancer #film [...]

  3. Rich Devlin Says:
    July 28th, 2010 at 5:43 AM

    Kairol, you are one amazing woman. Perhaps our paths will cross in our search. You go!

  4. Kairol Rosenthal Says:
    July 28th, 2010 at 12:32 PM

    Thanks for your comments Rich and ChemoBabe.

    I have a different take on your comment ChemoBabe. I don’t see the mission of making a “meaningful life” to be a survivorship issue - as you did acknowledge. It is something I witnessed my dad questioning when he retired, my friend asking himself as he feels dissatisfaction with his job, my cousin about to enter into 11th grade ask herself as she ponders her work life as an adult, and a question that I wish more of my friends would ask who are raking in the dough at jobs that corrode public health and the welfare of children.

    I feel no more urgency in asking myself this question now than I did when asking myself this question prior to my cancer diagnosis at age 27. Since cancer, I have set the bar higher and have a different standard of what works, what is enough, what actually makes an impact. But that is not so much from living with this disease as it is from becoming familiar with the failures and dysfunction that takes place by so many misguided and ineffective efforts to do good in the cancer world. I’m sure it is not just the cancer world alone that is riddled with good intentions that don’t amount to much real, large scale problem solving and change. It just happens to be the community I’ve been in for the past ten years, have gotten to investigate up close, and use as a springboard for what happens next.

    I am mighty curious about your new research project. Do share!

    All my best,


  5. Bunmi Says:
    July 29th, 2010 at 2:53 PM

    I’ve never seen The Killing Fields, but I have read a lot about the Khmer Rouge, and even wrote a story about it during graduate school. There’s a museum with a beautiful memorial wall in Chicago. The names of each person killed during those horrible years are etched on the wall. I remember being struck when the curator found his dad’s name and pointed it out to me…

  6. Kairol Rosenthal Says:
    July 29th, 2010 at 6:29 PM

    Bunmi, What a great resource you are. Never having heard of the museum, I just looked it up and it is less than 2 miles from my house. Who knew? I’m adding it to my list of places to go. Thanks.


  7. Tara Says:
    August 3rd, 2010 at 6:54 PM

    Good luck with your brainstorming! I hope you find some inspiration …ooo deja-vu right now.. ha, very weird… apparently I’ve wrote to you about this before;-)
    Anyway, to me, I think you already have been “of use in big ways that matter”, even if it’s not the “big ways” you were envisioning. Nonetheless, your desire to do even more is quite admirable, and you definitely have the smarts and talent to take on whatever projects that are “calling” you.

    I’ve been going thru the whole, how can I be of best use to this world?, thing too. I guess we all do, and not just at one time in our lives. It’s ongoing thing for me, but how deep I look into it changes, and what I find as an acceptable answer changes.
    Tricky part for me is I just have such limited means right now… physically I’m still getting my ass kicked, which leads to other financial and logistical problems, and though I feel like I’m supposed to be doing something more, ha, I just can’t seem to figure it out and at the end of the day am just exhausted and don’t have it in me to do any thinking of grandiose nature. So I’ve taken to just doing the small things right now…and trying to be ok with that;-)
    Ha, I’ll leave the “big stuff” to you, Kairol;-)

  8. Vanessa Says:
    August 11th, 2010 at 5:50 PM

    I really like the idea of not talking about cancer all the time. I like to educated myself about different things in addition to my cancer, treatment, etc. I do feel empowered from what I have gone through. People like you and me, have the courage to face any obstacle head on.

  9. Lucie Says:
    August 12th, 2010 at 9:09 PM

    Hi Kairol

    As soon as I was treatment free I was drawn to bigger things, better things, more worthy things to do with my time and life once I was given a little more of it - I didn’t reinvent my mind or morals, I just acted on them as I was not scared to do so, no longer felt any need to conform and also felt that my time and experienced perspective deserved to be applied to bigger things! Since then I have become involved with humanitarian work with orphaned children all over the world and its my joy - I feel at home amongst people who also know misfortune and inspired by the way they carry on with such grace! We actually talked about writing about my experiences a couple of years ago and you recommended writing my “book” in a blog, which I now do:) I love not talking about cancer:)

Leave a Comment