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Fighting cancer like a warrior princess

Petra Kotrotsos talks about her book I'd rather be a Fairy Princess, born out of her own history of dealing with cancer since the age of six

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I want the book to be a way for children going through cancer not to feel like they're alone and to make their experience more manageable and less scary. I'd like to help them understand cancer better from the words and viewpoint of someone other than just their doctors and nurses.
07 February 2018

Petra Kotrotsos is not your average 21-year-old. A video blogger and aspiring filmmaker, she 's also a cancer veteran, having been through various treatments since she was just six years old. Now, the young woman from Kilbirnie, Wellington has turned this experience into an picture book, illustrated by another young Greek New Zealander Christina Irini Arathimos.

As anyone can imagine, I'd Rather Be a Fairy Princess is much more than the average children's book; it's a survival manual, a spiritual guide and a source of inspiration for anyone affected by cancer, in any part of the world.

Speaking to Neos Kosmos, the writer shares the story behind the book - and her hope to help children get through the biggest adventure of their lives.

How did I'd Rather Be a Fairy Princess come to be?
I was always into fairies as a child and loved making up stories and bringing them to life. When I was going through cancer treatment at age six, it was only natural to use my imagination and love of fairies to deal with what I was facing. I could pass the time and escape from reality by reading fairy tales and imagining myself as a warrior fairy fighting cancer. So not only did I use my little kid imagination as a distraction while I was going through treatment, I used it to give me the strength to believe that I could fight cancer and get through treatment successfully.

With the help of a close family friend, I was able to capture the story in writing when I was seven years old. When I was 19, I attended a writing workshop organised by my cancer specialist nurse, Liz Sommer, and my (now) book publisher Mary McCallum of Mākaro Press. At the end of the session, I read out my childhood story and when I finished everyone clapped, and then Mary asked me if I'd ever imagined it as a picture book. Mary introduced me to the first-time illustrator Christina Irini - who is from a Greek family in Wellington like me - and the rest is history!

How was working with Christina? What did she bring to the story?
When I first met Christina Irini we bonded immediately. She was really open to capturing my ideas but also keen to add her own touch. Fortunately, we were both on the same wave length as she shared my love of fairies and had used her imagination and creativity in the same way as me when she was younger.

Our dynamics were comfortable, fun, easy, exciting and collaborative. We had a positive working relationship – not only did we 'get' each other, we could feed new ideas and concepts off each other. For example, Christina Irini used her love of animals to bring the Miles character, which is my cat, to life and developed him as a panther alongside the Warrior Princess. She also added some fine details in the drawings which add another level of interest to the picture book and make it even more special.

What is your main aspiration for this book?
I want the book to be a way for children going through cancer not to feel like they're alone and to make their experience more manageable and less scary. I'd like to help them understand cancer better from the words and viewpoint of someone other than just their doctors and nurses.

I would love to see the book in children's hospitals for kids to read while they are being treated for cancer, but also in bookshops and libraries so kids who may have a friend or relative, of any age, with cancer can better understand treatment and what the patient is going through.

Why did you want to share your story with the world?
At first, writing the book was just a bit of a distraction really - it gave me a creative outlet and let me express what I was going through in my own way at that time. It was just about recording my own experience and getting it down on paper, so I'd remember it when I was older. I didn't really think about its value as a published book and that's why it stayed in my bottom drawer until just recently.

But now that I have seen how people have responded to the book, I can see that sharing my story means I can help others - especially children - whose lives are affected by cancer.

What did you learn about yourself in the process?
That I can turn the creative ideas in my head into something useful!

If a book like this was around when you first began undergoing treatment, how would it have affected you?
When I was diagnosed there were lots of adults - like doctors and nurses - telling me what was going on. I was also given lots of pamphlets, but I couldn't understand much because all the information I was getting was from an adult's point of view or written by adults. I would've loved looking through and reading a picture book created from a child's perspective – I'd have been able to relate to that much better and could've applied it to my own situation. It would've probably encouraged me to use my own imagination more to help me through.

How does it feel, being a Warrior Princess?
It makes me feel stronger and more in control. I don't have much choice when it comes to treatment, but I can choose to face treatment and keep fighting cancer like a warrior.

What is the most important thing anyone has ever told you?
To take things one step at a time - minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day. My mum always reminds me to focus on getting through whatever it is that I am dealing with right now and not to think about what's going to happen - or not happen - next or in the future.

What was it that most helped you cope with the adversity you've had to face?
The love and support of my big fat Greek family!

What does being Greek mean to you?
For me, being Greek means I know that all my physical, emotional and spiritual needs are taken care of, especially in times of crisis! There was never a lack of anything for me and mum when I was in hospital, or for my dad and brothers at home. We were always well supported and comforted by a huge circle of family, friends and the wider Greek community who visited, helped out and brought endless amounts of gifts and food! I hated hospital food but there was always my favourite avgolemono soup from yiayia. Our priest not only visited me with blessings, prayers and icons – he used to bring me makaronia with kima as well!

The most important thing to me about being Greek is feeling the warmth, support and love of a family that extends beyond our immediate relatives and friends. And knowing that our house is always open and everyone who comes in will be welcomed and fed!

'I'd Rather Be a Fairy Princess' by Petra Kotrotsos and Christina Irini Arathimos is available at makaropress.co.nz

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