René Marsh builds hope from heartbreak
CNN correspondent, a 2002 alumna, writes children’s book after losing 2-year-old son to cancer
Blake Vince Payne loved a lot of things. He loved his parents, of course, but he also loved dance and music — especially Mozart and Bob Marley. But most of all he loved books. Even when the toddler was undergoing chemotherapy treatments for pineoblastoma, a rare pediatric brain cancer, he wanted to hold a book and be read a book.
“I could easily read 25 books to him per day and he would still want more,” says mom René Marsh ’02, a CNN correspondent based in Washington, D.C. “If it was a toy or a book, Blake would almost always go for a book.”
When Blake died shortly after his second birthday in April 2021, Marsh turned her grief into art, and what she hopes will push change. She recently published The Miracle Workers: Boy vs. Beast, a children’s book inspired by her son, with the goal of both helping other children and their families, and raising money for pediatric cancer research.
“The idea came to me out of that very dark time, that I wanted a book to read to my child that gave him this fighting spirit that I was also feeling,” she says.
As a TV journalist, Marsh is used to finding light in the dark. She came to Binghamton University to study English literature, and fell in love with journalism while doing an internship at what is now WWOR-TV in Secaucus, N.J., in 1999, the same summer John F. Kennedy Jr. died in a plane crash.
“The energy in the newsroom that day was nothing like I’d ever experienced,” she says. “To see TV news on a huge breaking news day like that: My mind was made up.”
Marsh earned a master’s degree in journalism from Syracuse University, then landed her first TV job in Shreveport, La., followed by two years in Albany, then four years in Miami until she landed at CNN in 2012. In her role there, Marsh has covered everything from the 2017 travel bans of largely Muslim countries to the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 to sexual assault and harassment on commercial airlines to the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) this past November. She also shared her son’s story with on-air segments such as how wearing masks isn’t political but protects children like him, and then her grief at his loss.
Blake was diagnosed with pineoblastoma on Dec. 24, 2019, when he was 9 months old. It’s a rare, aggressive cancer that starts in the pineal gland, which controls melatonin production. He underwent brain surgery shortly after Christmas 2019.
Marsh wrote The Miracle Workers: Boy vs. Beast largely from her son’s bedside, composing on her phone’s Notes app while in the hospital with Blake, in between sessions reading to him. She read even at times when he struggled most, such as when he was on life support for six days after having a near fatal reaction to a chemotherapy drug on his first round of treatment.
“I didn’t even know if he could hear me, but I continued to read to him because I wanted him to know I was there,” she says. “When we read to our kids, we’re reading for them but sometimes depending on your circumstances, you’re reading for you, too.”
The Miracle Workers: Boy vs. Beast is the kind of book she wished she’d had then, with an assist from the Bible. She and husband Kedric Payne leaned on their faith while Blake was in the hospital, and she once again came across the story of David and Goliath.
“That story gave me this hope, because while this looks really bad, we’re going to get past this monster,” she says. “It gave me the pep talk I needed in my mind despite what my eyes were showing me.”
In it, a boy named Blake has a monster of a problem that only a miracle can solve. Through the book, he learns that the first step to overcoming any challenge is believing that you can. Blake calls on the Miracle Workers for help, but will he unlock the secret to receiving his miracle? You’ll have to read to find out. Many others already have, as the book sold out its first print run in 72 hours. It’s now back in stock and can be purchased at www.Renemarsh.com.
Marsh is donating 100% of the book’s profits to the Blake Vince Payne Star Fund, a collaboration with the non-profit Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation. She is dedicated to bridging the funding gap when it comes to pediatric cancers, as only 4% of U.S. government spending on cancer research goes to pediatric cancers, according to the National Pediatric Cancer Foundation. Cancer is the leading cause of death by disease in children in the U.S., and for those children who survive, 95% have significant health-related issues by the age of 45.
“Blake was treated with chemotherapy drugs that were designed for adults four decades ago. Then he was given another drug that was designed seven decades ago,” she says. “Is this how we’re trying to solve or cure this disease when we know the biology of a child’s cancer is very different than that of an adult?”
In September 2021, Marsh spoke to lawmakers at the Congressional Childhood Cancer Caucus’ Annual Summit about these funding and treatment disparities, and about the personal impact of cancer on young patients and their families. She also presented them with about 14,000 signatures collected at cancelchildhoodcancer.com, which she calls “a living document for lawmakers to see the vast support among the American people to give children and pediatric cancer patients more of a chance to survive this disease.”
Marsh says that she and her husband continue to heal and “look for ways to help people that offset the sad feelings that I have of missing my son.” That includes also starting a charity run in his honor in the near future.
“If I can do something to help someone else, or continue to sound the alarm on this issue,” she says, “maybe it results in a child’s story not being what Blake’s story ended up being, and that will make my heart feel better.”