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Taylor Swift song inspired by child's cancer

By now you may have heard Taylor Swift's heart-rending song "Ronan," about the too-short life of a little boy. Ms. Swift gave it an emotional performance on the Stand Up to Cancer telethon on Sept. 7, and it has been topping the charts ever since.
Image: Undated photo of Maya Thompson and her son Ronan
Maya Thompson began a blog after her son Ronan's cancer diagnosis.Maya Thompson
/ Source: The New York Times

By now you may have heard Taylor Swift's heart-rending song "Ronan," about the too-short life of a little boy. Ms. Swift gave it an emotional performance on the Stand Up to Cancer telethon on Sept. 7, and it has been topping the charts ever since.

The real boy behind the song is Ronan Thompson, an impish 3-year-old from Phoenix with coppery blond hair and mesmerizing big blue eyes. In 2010, a few months after his third birthday, Ronan was given a diagnosis of neuroblastoma, an often deadly childhood cancer. He died on May 9, 2011, three days before he was to turn 4.

Ms. Swift learned about Ronan from a blog that his mother, Maya Thompson, began shortly after the diagnosis to keep family and friends informed. Ms. Thompson called the blog Rockstar Ronan, but she did not mince words about his illness, and her heartbreak was painfully evident in every update.

"A few weeks into it, I remember writing that I had a feeling this blog was going to get dark and ugly and scary, because it's a horrific thing to go through," she said in an interview. "I wasn't willing to sugarcoat any of this. I think a big part of why nothing gets done with childhood cancer is that everybody wants to wrap it in a cute little bow with cute little bald kids. But it's so sad. The statistics are so awful."

Ms. Thompson wrote about that too. Cancer is the second leading cause of death of children under 15 - after accidents - yet pediatric cancer receives only 3 to 4 percent of national cancer research funds. Although pediatric cancer is considered rare, an estimated 12,060 new cases are expected this year among children 14 and younger. The survival rate for pediatric cancer is about 80 percent.

About 650 to 700 children a year are found to have neuroblastoma, which is a solid-tumor cancer that originates in the adrenal gland, neck, chest, abdomen or pelvis. It's the most common cancer in infants and accounts for about 15 percent of all childhood cancer deaths. Countering these grim statistics were the pictures of Ronan, playing on the beach with his brothers, Liam and Quinn, laughing with his parents and gazing into the camera with his shocking blue eyes.

Ronan underwent rounds of chemotherapy, surgery and radiation, and traveled to hospitals around the country as his parents searched for a doctor who could save him. Soon, strangers were following his story - including Ms. Swift. The blog has now been viewed by more than six million people.

Ronan spent his last days in a pediatric hospice in Phoenix with his parents and brothers. After he died, his mother continued to write tearful posts on her blog, which had turned into an open letter to her son. She wrote about a new dislike for flowers, because of what they had come to represent. She wrote about her last words to Ronan: "Let's get out of here." She reminisced about his favorite holiday, Halloween, and how he'd run down the hall and play with toy cars on the floor.

In November, Ms. Thompson received a call from a publicist for Ms. Swift, inviting her to meet the singer at a concert in Phoenix. "She told me how she had been reading our blog for over a year, and her parents had been reading it and they were all devastated and touched by it," Ms. Thompson said. "I remember crying and she was crying."

Just a week before the cancer telethon, Ms. Thompson got a call from Ms. Swift, who said she had written a song about Ronan and wanted to give Ms. Thompson a writing credit, since it was based on her blog. Proceeds would go to cancer charities, and she wanted to show Ronan's photo behind her as she sang.

Like the rest of the country, Ms. Thompson first heard the song during the telecast, which she watched with her husband, Woody, her sons and friends. "It was hard for me to focus on the words coming out of her mouth, I was so impacted by the emotion on her face," she said of Ms. Swift. "I could see her sadness. Everybody was crying and saying it was the most beautiful thing they've ever heard."

Flowers pile up in the worst way
No one knows what to say
About a beautiful boy who died
And its about to be Halloween
You could be anything
You wanted if you were still here
I remember the last day
When I kissed your face
I whispered in your ear
Come on baby with me
We're gonna fly away from here

She listened to it again and was surprised to hear so many of her own words. "I was very touched that she knew such important little intimate details about his life and death and our story," Ms. Thompson said.

The song quickly moved to No. 1 on the iTunes chart, and has been hovering in and out of the top 10, and has been downloaded more than 327,000 times. Ms. Swift is donating all of her royalties to cancer charities, while Ms. Thompson's share will go to the Ronan Thompson Foundation. She plans to use the money to help establish a neuroblastoma research and treatment center.

"I want to create a community for these families and kids who are going through this," she said. "I made Ronan a promise that I would continue to fight for him, even though he's not here."

This article, “ ” first appeared in The New York Times.

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