From heartbreak to hope: How one NoVA mother moved forward

After losing her son to neuroblastoma, local mother Caryn Franca founded a nonprofit and wrote a book that details her son’s cancer battle.

my son's tattoo
Photo courtesy of Caryn Franca

Northern Virginia’s Caryn Franca faced a heartbreak that no mother should ever experience. When he was 15 years old, her son Nick was diagnosed with neuroblastoma, a rare form of childhood cancer. After a courageous six-year battle with the disease, Nick died.

In her recently published book, Lessons from My Son’s Tattoo, Franca walks readers through Nick’s journey and makes mention of the life lessons that he was able to teach his family and friends, lessons that have stuck with them.

Since Nick’s death, Franca has also founded a nonprofit called Band of Parents that helps fund essential research at major cancer centers throughout the country.

We spoke with Franca about her book and her drive to help others live their lives with more purpose, passion and resiliency.

my sons tattoo book cover
Photo by Barbara Zobian
Tell us about the time your son was diagnosed.

We were just like every other young family, until we weren’t. The spring of 2005 had been a blissful time with three children growing up and life at a normal pace. My son had appendicitis, and during the surgery they found a cyst on his spine. No one was alarmed, but after a summer of testing he was diagnosed with stage IV neuroblastoma, a rare childhood cancer that strikes very young children. Nick was not in the typical age group, and our world was changed forever.

How did that diagnosis change your family?

Our family uprooted and chose to have Nick’s primary treatment done at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York. An innovative approach to the disease had great success there. We were willing to give up everything we knew to give him the best chance of survival. 

Why did you decide to write the book Lessons from My Son’s Tattoo?

I wrote Lessons from My Son’s Tattoo because I felt called to share his fierce attitude about life with others. It is not a book just for cancer families. Addiction, divorce, abandonment, death, mental illness—these all require us to reset our compass points and navigate life with a new reality. While [this is] not a self-help book, I want the reader to highlight passages and reflect on the many wisdoms revealed in the book.

What has been the most rewarding part of writing Lessons from My Son’s Tattoo?

Recently, a man that I know casually approached me in a restaurant and started quoting the book without notes! He shared that he read it and then reread it highlighting passages to share with his sons to teach them life lessons. I actually choked up as I realized this wonderful person validated my “why.”

What is the story behind the creation of your nonprofit, Band of Parents?

In 2007 Nick had his first relapse. I was one of a dozen or so parents living in the Ronald McDonald House in New York City that said there has to be a better way. We asked for a meeting with the lead researcher, who revealed that there was a treatment for neuroblastoma that betters the odds after relapse, if only there was more money for research.

What are some of the projects that Band of Parents has worked on?

The first project was called “The Loneliest Road.” A group of dads all with children who had relapsed literally biked across America raising money and awareness. The next project was a massive cookie sale at the holidays. This event launched another foundation now known as Cookies for Kid’s Cancer. We all had renewed hope that broken, distraught parents could walk beside each other and truly launch a movement.

What is the best way for others to get involved?

Today Band of Parents has grown from a grassroots small team of parents to the largest nonprofit fundraiser of neuroblastoma treatments at several cancer centers in the United States. We have a beautiful website that offers support to families and lists ways to get involved or donate directly to the mission.