Coming To Terms
Writer explores childhood cancer journey through fiction
By Jessica Laskey
Maia Evrigenis could not have known her battle with adolescent cancer would be universal, but that’s what happened when her fictional memoir “Neon Jane” was published by Koehler Books this past May.
“As a cancer survivor, I felt like I was living in a different body,” says the Arden Arcade resident, who was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia at age 13. “Other people didn’t have bodies that made cancer cells. I felt weird and alone about being different, and that’s the part of the book people tell me they relate to the most. It’s given me the sense that my extremely personal experience is actually very universal.”
Evrigenis spent seventh and eighth grade at Sutter Middle School in treatment and recovery for AML, a rare blood cell cancer that requires intense chemotherapy, which Evrigenis received at Stanford’s Lucille Packard Children’s Hospital.
Since Evrigenis hails from a well-known local family—her father, orthodontist Greg Evrigenis, has put braces on many kids in town—she became known as “Greg’s sick kid.” She tried to escape this identity by attending New York University, thinking she’d start over in a new city.
“Little did I know that the cancer survivor identity made me me. It wasn’t something I wanted to forget,” she says.
“People didn’t know I had that heavy history. I missed being somewhere where people respected me, where I felt more understood. Now that I’m back in Sacramento, I feel vulnerable but also the most seen. I’m validated being around people who knew me then.”
Coming to terms with her identity as a cancer survivor led Evrigenis to pursue a master’s of fine arts degree at California Institute of the Arts and capture her feelings in a book. She always wanted to be a writer, but many people encouraged her to pursue medicine and find a cure for cancer. It took four years at NYU to realize she was meant to be a writer.
“By senior year, I could not ignore that I had this book ready to be written,” says Evrigenis, who graduated with her MFA in 2019. “Getting my MFA was the right choice. I got to really focus there and this book just came out.”
While “Neon Jane” is loosely based on Evrigenis’ experience, it’s a work of fiction. Jane is a spunky, pink-wigged ghost who haunts 24-year-old protagonist Maia, pressuring her to be a more successful person in the name of childhood cancer. (Evrigenis wore a pink wig after losing her hair during chemo, but that’s where the similarities end.)
“It’s been really well received because people say it feels so real,” the writer says.
Although Evrigenis is working on her next project (a short story collection), she’s taking a moment to revel in a job well done.
“Though as a writer you’re naturally always thinking about what’s next, I’m trying to enjoy the fact that this book is completed,” Evrigenis says. “I see it sitting on my parents’ coffee table and I think, oh my gosh, I actually did it! Now I’m just trying to focus on my baby girl Jean and feeling much more present. For the first time in my life, I don’t feel pressure to write this story.”
“Neon Jane” is available at Capital Books, Beers Books and online at Barnes & Noble, Amazon, Walmart, Indiebound and BookShop. For information, visit koehlerbooks.com/book/neon-jane.
Jessica Laskey can be reached at email@example.com. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento.