Paying it Forward

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Carolyn Vachani, RN, MSN, AOCN

After a cancer diagnosis, many survivors and their loved ones are motivated to give back some of the good fortune or good experiences they had on their cancer journey. They may feel fortunate to have been one of the lucky 13 million (and counting) who survived the disease or feel blessed that they had wonderful people around them for support during such a trying time. And so they look to ‘pay it forward’ – to give to someone else the same feeling of good fortune. But how? We can’t all write checks like the Rockefellers, but there is something for everyone who wants to get involved and pay it forward.

If you wonder what motivates someone to get involved then you may not understand just how two sided giving back can be. Many get involved because of their own experiences and desire to help others on that same journey, but they quickly learn that they get more in return then they ever imagined.

Donna Lee is a lung cancer survivor who truly loves being able to put her skills into action as an advocate, blogger and a friend to many a newly diagnosed person. She summed it up like this:

When I was diagnosed with lung cancer it was a crystallizing moment in many ways. Besides the obvious shock and sheer terror, I knew if I survived I was meant to do something to promote awareness and better treatments. It took a good year before I was mentally ready, but when I started, I knew I had a moral duty to pay it forward. I felt as if lung cancer advocacy was my life’s mission. My whole life was preparing me for this moment. It became very clear that I had been born with the ability and the fortitude to fight this fight.  I am not a financial millionaire, but I am rich in so many other ways that I felt I had to share my god given gifts of determination and toughness – well stubbornness – to not accept ‘no’ for an answer. If I didn’t do it, who would? I have never felt so sure about anything in my life, I speak for those who came before me and didn’t survive and hopefully will be able to have a small part in allowing people after me to also become a survivor like me.

Vince had the surprise of his life ten years ago, when he was diagnosed with Stage III Cancer of the tongue. His treatment consisted of 37 radiation sessions, weekly chemotherapy and a modified neck dissection. This experience became the catalyst to want to ‘pay it forward’. He described his experience:

‘A good six months after my last Chemo and radiation treatments I discovered Reiki and this is the vehicle by which I am able to pay back. I now practice side by side with two nurses, who were my chemo nurses ten years ago. I loved them then and consider them very close friends now and will for as long as I have breath. I have been doing Reiki for all of nine years, but the last two and a half years I have been involved with Reiki Volunteer Services at Penn Medicine has been the most wonderful time I have ever spent. I remain grateful in so many ways for the wonderful people who brought me to this place – first and foremost, my wonderful wife and children. The extraordinary caregivers I had at Penn inspired me to do this by their example and I really treasure this opportunity.’

While some survivors make big life changes, such as starting a business or changing career paths after their life changing experience with cancer, not everyone has that in them. That’s ok! There are lots of ways to give back using your own talents. Let’s talk about a few…

  • Join a ‘buddy program’ where you talk to newly diagnosed patients to help them get through treatment. Many advocacy groups have them (LCA, CCA) or ask at your cancer center- they may have a program. Imerman Angels is a national group that matches patients and survivors.
  • Many cancer centers have groups that knit hats and/or blankets – ask around!
  • Get in shape and raise money for one of the many advocacy organizations that hold walks and 5K runs. Thinking big? How about Team in Training, a LLS event?
  • Volunteer to drive patients to appointments with the ACS Road to Recovery program.
  • Got extra room at the house? Host a family getting treatment far from home.
  • Volunteer at a local cancer center- there are many needs – it does not have to be directly with patients.
  • Too busy? Give blood or become a bone marrow donor.

Be creative! A local survivor ran a dance studio, so he started offering free dance classes for survivors; another survivor owns a bed and breakfast and offers low cost rooms to out of towners here for treatment. Find something that fits your personality and lifestyle. I guarantee you will come away from the experience with more than you brought!