Sharing His Story

Sixteen-Year-Old Alphabet Streets Resident Theo Tittle Gives Insight
Into Losing a Parent to Cancer

By JAMES GAGE | Reporter

You would never be able to tell by looking at him, but 39-year-old Bently Tittle had cancer. Tall, broad and sun-tanned, a surfer, artist and filmmaker with a bright smile, he was the quintessential Californian father (though originally from Kentucky).

His wife, Christine, an accomplished screenwriter, and their son, Theo, a healthy 1-year-old boy, shared a home in the Alphabet Streets of Pacific Palisades.

But in 2003, Bently was diagnosed with hereditary leiomyomatosis renal cell cancer, or HLRCC, a rare genetic form of kidney cancer. People diagnosed with HLRCC are at an increased risk of developing kidney cancer, particularly a form known as type II papillary renal cell carcinoma.

Archive photos courtesy of Christine Roum-Tittle

The diagnosis would not come as a total surprise to him. Bently’s own father had been diagnosed with cancer at age 38, when he was just 16. Though cancer would change Bently’s life forever—it couldn’t change how his son remembered him.

“He was an awesome dad—and my best friend,” Theo Tittle, now 16 years old, said in a recent interview with the Palisadian-Post. “There’s no forgetting, ever, but there’s growing.”

From the beginning of Theo’s childhood, Bently underwent three major surgeries, radiation, chemotherapy and was part of a clinical trial at the National Institute of Health. Yet it seemed like he would always find a way to recover from the harsh treatments.

In 2013, Bently had another recurrence. But this time, he didn’t recover.

In February 2014, a week after celebrating Theo’s 12th birthday, he died. A memorial held at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre drew hundreds. Theo, just 12 years old, delivered one of the many eulogies given in his father’s honor.

“Even though I went to a lot of chemo sessions and I was there for it all, I never thought he would actually die from it because he always recovered,” Theo said. “Stuff would flare up, but it never stopped him from surfing, painting, making films, teaching and just being his usual funny self.

“Losing my dad was the biggest loss in the world. It’s a really hard thing for anyone to go through, but especially for a kid.”

Though devastated by the loss, Theo and his mom Christine would become closer, comforting each other through a period of grief only they could understand.

“I remember the night before my dad’s memorial, and my mom and I just kind of laid on the bed together. We were sitting there and she was just like this calm presence, and I felt like I had somebody there for me.

She didn’t need something from me. She didn’t need me to outpour or to give her my feelings. We didn’t need to  talk. She was there to just be with me.”
With support from his family, friends and psycho-social professionals at the Simms/Mann-UCLA Center for Integrative Oncology, who specialize in helping families cope with the challenges of cancer, Theo was able to get through that difficult time and continue to grow.

“I needed the words to be able to explain to him everything that was happening,” Christine Roum-Tittle told the Post. “The Simms-Mann Center was there for me at the worst moment in my life with total grace. They knew the terrain. They were there for us for two years after that loss. Our counselor, Kauser Ahmed, PhD, gave me the words I needed when we knew we were going to lose Bently.”

“People think, ‘He had cancer for 10 years, didn’t you kind of expect this?’ But the truth is, no, we didn’t,” Christine said. “He had fought this aggressive form of cancer for so long, but nothing can prepare you for the loss.”

Now, Theo is reaching back out and helping other kids that have been in his position, volunteering his time as a peer mentor at the Simms-Mann UCLA Center for Integrative Oncology, the same center that helped him through the loss of his father.

“I want other kids to realize, ‘This isn’t always going to be my life,’” Theo said. “‘I’m not going to be mourning forever.’ I want other kids to realize that there’s no feeling you’re supposed to feel. There’s no playbook.

“Some people think you should be crying every minute of the day and be really sad all the time. Yes, you’re sad, but you’ll still feel other things. You can still have fun with your friends and go out and play. You just have to do what’s right for you.”

The Simms-Mann Center has several programs that help kids and adults navigate the loss of a loved one with cancer, giving them the tools and the language they need to cope.

“While situations like the one that Theo and his family were facing are very difficult, it is a real privilege for those of us who provide psychological and emotional support through the cancer trajectory to families to be invited into people’s lives at such intimate and critical times,” said Ahmed, clinical psychologist and director of Simms-Mann UCLA Center for Integrative Oncology and counselor to Christine and Theo.

“To know that the guidance and presence that we can provide helps families to navigate these incredible challenges is deeply rewarding. But when someone like Theo comes back, years later, with such maturity, perspective and a desire to give back and help other kids and families—that is beyond meaningful.”

Over time, Theo and Christine have been able to reclaim some of the things they loved doing most with Bently—eating at his favorite Cuban restaurant, listening to a mix of his favorite music, or taking a yearly trip on Bently’s birthday to the Venice beach he loved to surf.

“People say I look like my dad,” Theo said. “It sometimes makes me uncomfortable because they’re emotional about it. But I take it as a compliment. For them, they see me and feel like my dad is there.

“And at first, I was scared that as I started to feel better I might forget about him. But that’s impossible. I think about my dad in a million little ways every single day. Sometimes it’s funny—like seeing some goofy person that Dad would have liked. Other times I really miss him, like when I’m around other kids with their dads. And then there’s times when I’m in a situation, and I think, ‘What would Dad do?’ And I get an answer really fast. It’s like he’s here with me.”