Category Archives: life

This is my American Cancer Society story. What’s yours?

I’ve spent a large portion of my life volunteering in some capacity for the American Cancer Society.

In that time, I’ve had the opportunity to listen to the stories of so many cancer survivors, their family members, researchers, staff members and fellow volunteers.

What has always resonated with me, and really helped to keep my volunteer spirit alive, is that every dollar raised helps to shape someone’s story.

When I was a reporter, hearing people’s stories was part of the job — whether they were angry about a borough council decision, working to create a better community or sharing with me the grief of losing a child.


You can support the American Cancer Society through a
donation to my Relay For Life fundraising efforts.


Stories shape us. Stories define us. Stories connect us.

Several years back, I shared my American Cancer Society story at a divisional staff conference.

Below is that speech, with some edits sprinkled within. Since I delivered this speech, there have been many other friends who have had their own stories.

The American Cancer Society is built on stories.

For many of you, it was a story that brought you to the American Cancer Society.

Your story might have started as a volunteer.

Your story might have started in another division.

Your story might have started as a caregiver.

Your story might have started as a survivor.

You might be one of those people who say your story started because you saw a group of people at a stadium walking laps … or riding bikes … or wearing pink from head to toe.

Think back to the moment you first walked into an American Cancer Society event either as a volunteer, participant or as staff.

What were you feeling?

Who were you with?

What was the atmosphere like?

Can you picture those purple or pink survivor shirts?

How about the smell of walking tacos or the sounds of a volunteer promoting the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network?

Were there tears?

Most importantly … what was the weather like? We all remember the weather at American Cancer Society events!

My story begins when I was in middle school. Before I knew of purple shirts and the words “caregiver” or “survivor,” I knew what chemotherapy was.

Before I knew what a luminaria ceremony was or what being an event chair meant, I knew what it was like watching someone lose her hair, lose weight and lose her excitement for life.

Before I knew what the American Cancer Society was, I knew I hated cancer.

Five months after turning 13, I watched my grandmother die. She had been diagnosed with bladder cancer.

She never saw me drive a car, graduate or get to read my byline on news story I wrote.

My grandmother and I never again hung ornaments on a Christmas tree.

I never watched her do crafts again.

She never walked a survivor lap.

I’ve never gotten over what cancer did to her, to me and to my family.

But my story doesn’t end with just mourning the loss of someone who — to this day — means so much to me.

Nearly a year after her death, I participated in my first Relay For Life.

It was like the iconic Relay we think of: Football stadium (when schools let you use the field more liberally than many do now), visitor side bleachers shining with “HOPE” in luminaria bags, hundreds of walkers and participants and thousands of dollars raised.

There were raffles, games, baskets, homemade haluski, cookies, hot dogs and many sleeping tents; lumunaria bags seemed to be able to be lined from here to Erie — probably not that far, but when you’re that young, that’s what it seems like.

There were high school students, middle school students, churches, politicians, school district employees, families, banks, corporate teams and neighborhood groups.

We celebrated survivors. We remembered loved ones who died. And we pledged to continue fighting back through more fundraising.

And that was long before we understood the “Celebrate. Remember. Fight Back.” tagline.

There were people.

There was fun.

And there was a lot of money being raised to fund the mission.

I was hooked.

My story started with my maternal grandmother’s diagnosis, but cancer has written many chapters in my American Cancer Society story — from friends and colleagues to former teachers, parents of friends and others I’ve come to know over the years.

There’s a friend, who, in her mid-20s, was diagnosed with cervical cancer. Doctors told her she likely never would have kids.

There’s another friend, who also in her mid-20s, was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her mom served as a caregiver during her journey. A few years later, she became the caregiver for her mom.

There was my mom’s best friend, who was diagnosed with cancer. Her story began with a brain tumor, and the cancer spread.

My mom and her friend had gone to Myrtle Beach about two weeks every summer for more than a decade. Their last trip was not long before her diagnosis.

She died in October 2014 — about a month before her son married his wife.

A month or so before that, cancer tried writing a chapter for me.

“You either have an inverted papilloma or sinus cancer,” a doctor told me.

Truth be told, all I heard was “sinus cancer.” And all I knew was that either result — the papilloma or cancer — would mean surgery.

That was Monday, Sept. 15 — just five days after I had a CT scan to see what was going on with my nasal passages that had caused many problems including the inability to fully breathe and swallow for at least four years.

It was 10 days after the nation’s largest Stand Up 2 Cancer party I helped plan and host. At that time, the American Cancer Society and Stand Up 2 Cancer partnered for watch parties across the country. We worked so hard to build the largest party.

It also was four days before I’d be in Dallas, Texas, for an American Cancer Society national summit for Relay For Life.

I was the doctor’s last patient that day. He had canceled all but two appointments due to an unscheduled day in the operating room that apparently went longer than anticipated.

My first visit with him in late August was when he requested a CT scan.

“You’re a mess,” were the words he used — in a fun, upbeat way so not to scare me.

I thought? I hoped, at least?

So, on Sept. 15, as we looked over the CT scan results, he explained how imperative it was to have surgery to remove the funky objects inside my nasal passages.

“So, this isn’t because of allergies?” I said, hoping he’d say yes.

“It’s much worse than that,” the doctor said.

So, right then and there, I had my first biopsy.

It was painless, really. No needles were involved, just a shot of some spray to numb the inside of my nose. As he clipped away at the growth inside my nose, he made attempts at small talk by asking about a story he read recently that I wrote.

I knew he knew I was scared.

Not usually at a loss for words, I was mumbling words and fumbling for letters to complete those words.

But I was trying to play it cool.

Meanwhile, I didn’t know what the hell was going on.

“We’ll get the results in about two days,” he said.

Two. Days.

Two.

Days.

That’s 48 hours for those who do math.

“What do I tell my mother?” I thought. “‘Hey, Mom, so you know how I went to the doctor? Well, he sniped a piece of the thing in my nose and we’ll find out soon … well, in two days … if that thing is cancer?’ Yeah, that’s not going to work.”

So, I told her nothing.

She likes a good cliffhanger, but only in Salem on “Days of our Lives” — not when it involved the health of any of her family.

As soon as I got in my car to leave the doctor’s office (tissues stuffed up my nose because it was bleeding), I called a friend.

An in-person hug would have done wonders, but I had to settle for a phone call.

And, I went back to work. Doing so calmed me down. Or at least the thought of it calming me down was what I was going with.

My next call?

It was to the American Cancer Society’s National Cancer Information Center. You know, that 1-800-227-2345 number we all say really quickly when we’ve completely forgotten a mission moment, and then we tell others, “That number has a lot of stuff.”

And a lot of stuff it had for me.

The nice man on the other end of the phone (Ryan was his name) was extremely nice and comforting and emailed me a whole bunch of information that I read later that night.

On the second day of that two-day period for biopsy results, I saw the doctor’s office calling my phone. So, I quickly answered.

It was a woman explaining I didn’t need a second CT scan after all.

“He got what he needed,” she said.

“But what about the results?” I said, and quickly followed it up with, “I mean the biopsy results. Do you know when they’ll be back?”

She put me on hold.

“So, this is how I’ll hear the results?” I thought. “Sitting in my work conference room on my iPhone?”

You see, as an American Cancer Society volunteer, I had this idealistic view of how someone’s story as a survivor began.

That idyllic thought goes like this: You go for your appointment. You have some tests and such done. Ans when those results come back, you are sitting in your doctor’s office with them behind their desk and you in a fancy wooden chair and the doc says, “Mr. So-And-So, you have cancer.”

Never mind the fact that the story doesn’t make sense because of all of the holes in it. How do you know you need to come back to the doctor? Do you schedule that appointment prior to and just know that’s what happens?

Thankfully, she got back on the phone before my mind raced any more and explained that the results were not yet ready.

Not. Ready. Yet.

Not.

Ready.

Yet.

NotReadyYet.

“Not yet ready?” I panicked in my head. “That’s because it is worse than I thought. Oh god. How do I tell my mother? How do I go back to work? This isn’t how it’s supposed to work! And I know how it’s supposed to work, damn it! I VOLUNTEER FOR THE AMERICAN CANCER SOCIETY! I KNOW HOW THIS WORKS!”

Spoiler alert: I did not know how this works.

So, she tells me that if I don’t hear back from them by the end of the next business day to call Friday morning.

Awesome.

Except.

I was to be in Dallas that Friday morning for the Relay For Life summit.

There was no way I was going to be *ahem* deep in the heart of Texas as I got news on whether this thing in my nose was cancerous.

So, I waited until Sept. 22 — an entire week since he took out the piece to be biopsied — to call.

But before that day arrived, I was in Dallas for an entire weekend of nothing but cancer-themed discussions … all while trying to tell myself I can’t worry about what’s going on in my nose. I did well, for the most part.

That is, until the final portion of the conference when a speaker told a story about going to a doctor and being told a biopsy needed to happen, then trying not to freak out waiting for the biopsy results.

“You could get flattened like a pancake leaving the doctor’s office,” the man said.

I had that exact thought about my situation.

And I thought about how a plane could crash into me and a tree could fall and a meteor could land … and then that damn biopsy result wouldn’t matter.

That’s what I told myself.

I don’t think I believed it.

But it helped.

I should probably note that on the flight to and from Dallas, I finally found time to read a book I had been longing to read but couldn’t find time.

The book?

“The Fault in Our Stars.”

I know, right?

I had tried many times over the summer, but couldn’t get far because I cried and then set the book aside.

On a plane, though, I was stuck reading the book or dealing with the strangers next to me.

And, wow, did that book make me cry.

So, Sept. 22 comes.

Mondays — at the job I was doing at the time— were busy days for me at work. So finding time to call was a problem.

But I knew I couldn’t put it off.

I sat back in the work conference room, dialed the number and tapped the many prompts to get to some woman who sounded as if her office was in Bedrock.

To be honest, she wasn’t very friendly.

“Hi, I’m looking for results of a biopsy I had last week?” I said.

After a few more questions and placing me on hold, she said: “Well, the doctor will have to call you back. He’ll call within the hour.”

An hour?

“Well, this isn’t good,” I thought. “Why couldn’t she just tell me? I know why she couldn’t tell me because the doctor always tells the patient they have cancer.”

I know because I VOLUNTEER FOR THE AMERICAN CANCER SOCIETY. I KNOW HOW THIS WORKS.

Spoiler alert: I still did not know how this works.

So, I sat back down at my desk. My co-worker looked on and I said, “The doctor will call within the hour.”

Within the hour the doctor called.

I don’t know if I’ve ever sprung from my desk that quickly.

I raced to the conference room.

“Bobby,” the doctor started and continued with an apology for not calling back. I didn’t care, man! You’re on the phone now … spill it!

“What’s going on in your nose is this: It’s an inverted papilloma,” he said.

What?

Me: “So … ??????”

Him: “We’ll remove it.”

Me, in my head: “Yes, I know, that’s why I already have surgery scheduled with you!”

Me to the doctor: “So … is it cancer?”

Him: “No.”

Me, in my head: “He said no. I think he said no. Did I ask it right? I asked if it was cancer. He said no. So, it isn’t cancer. The tumor in my nose isn’t cancer.”

He said some other things, I think. I’m wasn’t really sure. I was listening, but not comprehending anything — which is very rare for me because I remember the most insanely minute details.

All I heard was that he said the thing in my nose that’s caused breathing issues and swallowing problems wasn’t cancerous.

Surgery would be enough to fix it.

I had that surgery … four days before my mom’s best friend died.

But, like many things in life, that “no” from the doctor came with fine print.

I think the doctor removed what amounted to nearly a dozen tumors in my nose and head, and said that, had I waited another month or two, I’d have been in surgery to remove tumors near my brain.

In a checkup appointment a few months after the surgery, he told me the tumors likely will come back at some point.

And when they do return, he thinks there is a chance they could be cancerous. So, I have regular checkups to keep an eye on things.

But I couldn’t think about that. In fact, going into surgery, I wasn’t thinking about that.

I didn’t have time.

Because someone else was adding a chapter to her American Cancer Society story.

Just a few days before the surgery to remove the benign tumors in my head, a dear friend called to tell me the results of her biopsy.

She had been diagnosed with breast cancer.

I was devastated.

She had been a source of support for so many people. She was everyone’s cheerleader.

I’ve seen her treat complete strangers at Relay For Life events with such a warm and compassionate heart.

She’s the person who lets volunteers unsure of their value see their full potential.

She encouraged us to challenge ourselves to not just think outside of the box, but to break the damn box.

She embodied the spirit of the American Cancer Society mission. That year, she received the staff partner of the year award.

Days after, she had surgery.

That 800 number we all push? I called it in the days leading up to her surgery. I talked with a guy named Chris.

For the first time in my adult life, I had to use the term “caregiver.”

I can fill the role of volunteer well, but caregiver? I had my doubts.

So, I told Chris I needed help. He told me about resources the American Cancer Society has, offered to email those to me, and told me to call back after I read over them with more questions.

I started this off by talking about the stories that bring people together.

But there’s something else about the American Cancer Society that keeps volunteers like myself coming back year after year.

It’s the team captains we meet at Relay For Life events. The ones who are coerced by co-workers or friends and family to take on the role only to later discover a loved one has been diagnosed.

Or watching a daughter put her arm around her mother at a Making Strides Against Breast Cancer event within days of the mother hearing those three little words that pack such a big punch.

It’s the bicyclists who travel 328 miles between Cleveland and Cincinnati.

It’s the families who depend on Hope Lodge locations to find some comfort in an unfamiliar time.

So, we return to Relay For Life events.

We return to Making Strides events.

We keep pedaling (well, I don’t — others do) at bike events, or buying daffodils or raffle tickets or walking tacos.

And, guess what?

It’s working!

Cancer survival rates are increasing.

Prevention and early detection programs are working.

It’s working every day in our communities from Anderson Township to Perrysburg, Ohio, from Belmont County, to Ashtabula, Ohio, from Erie to Greene County, Pa., and from West Chester to Montrose, Pa, with Relay For Life events; and from Philadelphia to Washington, Pa., and from Jefferson County to Lima, Ohio, with Making Strides Against Breast Cancer walks; and to our bike events and other fundraising events … what … you … are … doing … is … working.

We ARE fighting cancer. And we ARE saving lives.

Every day, the American Cancer Society is saving lives.

Thousands and thousands of calls are made each year to the National Cancer Information Center.

Thousands of nights of free or reduced-rate lodging are provided to cancer patients and their families traveling away from home for treatment.

Thousands of cancer patients who are uninsured or on Medicaid receive assistance.

Those are great stories to tell.

But this next one blows my mind.

There’s about $26 million in nearly 40 research grants in Pennsylvania, as of Aug. 1, 2021.

We are fighting cancer. And we are saving lives.

But we only can do better if we share our stories and work together.

We need to keep building relationships so we have more stories to tell.

My 2021 in 21 Instagram posts

While I spent much of the year navigating the pandemic, I still got to experience so many things. Every year is filled with love and loss and great memories. Here’s a slice of what my 2021 looked like.

Kicked off 2021 with … cold brew coffee

This was the first cold brew coffee of 2021. The first of many!

Presque Isle Lighthouse in snow

I don’t know if I had ever walked to the lakeshore side when there was snow on the ground.

I walked on (frozen) water

This was my first time walking on Presque Isle Bay from the Presque Isle side! I watched people ice fishing, playing hockey and doing other ice-related activities.

I got vaxxed

Doing the neighborly thing.

Visited the Erie Zoo!

This little baby orangutan is adorable!

I visited Wawa. (Twice)

We all make mistakes.

Saw the White House

Pennsylvania Avenue was closed, so this was the closest I could get.

Swam in this natural spring pool

My first visit to Bedford Springs! I had this pool to myself for at least 90 minutes.

Got to see this Gulf station!

Finally! I’d wanted to see this building ever since WQED’s Rick Sebak shared it on a history program.

Visited the United 93 crash site

I was here a week shy of the 20th anniversary.

Our beloved rescue Kaci died

❤️

Visited Ellicottville

Took a stroll to see old buildings, sites in Ellicottville

Selfied with world’s largest pickle

It’s a big dill.

Watched fireworks be lit off of Pittsburgh’s City-County Building

That had never been done before!

I got to see NYC decorated for Christmas

This was such a highlight of my life!

Saw Macy’s Christmas windows!

Hello, Tiptoe!

Saw the Rockettes!

What a great show!

Made new friends

Best NYC tour guide!

Saw old friends!

I love these guys.

Saw Erie history light up!

The Warner Theatre marquee had not been lit in more than 40 years.

Rode the Jack Rabbit on Christmas Eve

In the 101-year history of Kennywood Park’s Jack Rabbit, it had never operated in December. I got to ride it on Dec. 24! I also ate Potato Patch fries on Christmas Eve. Yinzplosion!

‘I don’t have to apologize for letting go or choosing things in the name of my peace and healing’

I did something this week that was long overdue: I stepped away from all of my volunteer and extracurricular activities.

I stepped back from volunteering* with an organization I’ve been heavily involved with for more than 25 years.

I officially resigned from a nonprofit board position, stepped back from a few other nonprofits where I’ve offered assistance or volunteered and said no to some recent asks for my help in other activities.

And it feels good.

(Continue reading below the Instagram post.)

Being forced last year to pause so much helped me take a hard look at what I was spending my life doing. Like a lot of you, I said “yes” far too much.

I’ve been going hard at volunteering for nonprofits for way too long. For many years, I tried to keep track of my hours spent volunteering and I easily racked up anywhere from 1,800 to 2,600 hours a year volunteering.

I’ve put so much time in, and I just needed to take a break — something I’ve been trying to do for a few years now. But every time I found myself with extra time, I found some nonprofit group or activity to fill its void. I’ve said “yes” too often just thinking it would be a simple ask, and it usually wasn’t.

The ongoing global pandemic has taught me that I need to slow down and live my life.

The nonprofit groups will continue. The other activities will go on.

When I’m ready, I’ll find my way back into volunteering — either for groups I’ve recently hit pause on or new endeavors.

There’s a song from one of the greatest musicals — “Avenue Q” — that I often am reminded of: “For Now.” The lyrics go: “Nothing lasts. Life goes on, full of surprises. … Except for death and paying taxes, everything in life is only for now.” This pause is only for now.

What led me to this decision that, from the outside, seems drastic? As I said earlier, it’s been a long time coming. When doing any kind of volunteering, I think of another “Avenue Q” song that goes: “When you help others, you’re really helping yourself.” Helping nonprofit groups began to feel like tasks mounting with no end in sight — and I started to feel as though I wasn’t helping myself.

A friend suggested that nonprofit work should still — at the core — be fun and fulfilling.

The other day, I ran across a post on Facebook with the quote posted above. I found Yasmine Cheyenne’s Instagram account to give her proper credit. But that quote (“I don’t have to apologize for letting go or choosing things in the name of my peace and healing”) really resonated with me. It’s OK to let go.

* Besides, did you really think I could completely step away? I’m still going to raise some money for the American Cancer Society because I signed up as a team captain and don’t want to have a zero-dollar team. But I’m going to do it with as little effort this year. And I still plan to help with a journalism group.

Of course, with an ongoing pandemic, there is little to fill this large chunk of time with. And maybe that’s for the best for now.

With food, every day is a Good Friday for meatless eaters

Growing up, I remember wondering what was so “good” about Good Friday.

I couldn’t eat meat, and Good Friday always happened to fall on a Friday (funny how that works), which meant Pizza Friday, which meant no pepperoni, which meant WHY EVEN HAVE PIZZA.

No meat on Good Friday became a carryover family tradition from older generations in the family who were far more religious than my family.

Fast forward a few decades to a time when I no longer eat meat on any day of the year.

I laugh thinking of how I felt so put out that I couldn’t have pepperoni pizza or chicken tenders.

Not having meat with a meal was unthinkable then.

Want a salad? No bacon. WHY HAVE SALAD!

A burger? No way! WHAT IS THE POINT OF LIFE!

So I recall a lot of grilled cheese sandwiches and cheese pizza — two otherwise excellent options EXCEPT WHEN MEAT WAS NOT AN OPTION!


What a minor sacrifice it was for that short period. It’s similar to how I see those who forgo something for Lent. A huge deal is made for something such as coffee or pop or candy.

Today, I only consider meatless options — of which there are plenty to choose from — for meals.

Forced romanticism

I originally wrote this column for twodaymag.com — an online dating and social scene magazine for Millennials. This column appeared Feb. 11, 2013, at twodaymag.com.

With the onslaught of forced romanticism we’ll endure this week across social media, in the news, in the workplace and from family and friends, will come the anti-Valentine’s Day crowd.

Call them the 1-percenters, the love-haters or Occupy Valentine’s Day, but the growing number of singles is … well, actually growing.

About half of Americans are single, and ⅓ of all households are occupied with one person, The New Yorker said in a 2012 story.

Despite those numbers, floral shops are scurrying to fill orders of long-stem red roses, bakeries can’t keep “I love you” cookies and cakes in stock and store shelves of those heart-shaped candy boxes will move faster than bread and toilet paper with the threat of 1-inch of snow.

And I can only imagine how busy Kay Jewelers counters will be this week. Ugh.

So as half of America apparently will celebrate Valentine’s Day with a special love, the rest of us have the chance to celebrate Single’s Awareness Day — with its anything but true abbreviation of S-A-D.

“The goal of Singles Awareness Day is to let singles have celebrations, get-togethers, etc., and to exchange gifts with their single friends,” according to SinglesAwarenessDay.com. “The awareness day was established by single people who were just sick of feeling left out on Valentine’s Day, and support of the day is growing every year.”

The website touts Feb. 15 as the big holiday, but I’ve seen other references to Feb. 13 and Feb. 14 as well.

Some Singles Awareness Day events are lighthearted — happy hours, singles gift exchanges and dinner with single friends.

The folks at Smokey Bones even are pushing a Singles Awareness Day happy hour Friday in an effort to give single people a chance to meet others (or maybe allow post-Valentine’s Day couples a chance to test the waters, eh?).

But there really are some great activities you can do just to make someone else’s day special, SinglesAwarenessDay.com says.

“If you have the evening free, why not call a local hospital or nursing home to find out if there’s a patient who doesn’t have family visiting frequently and drop in to wish them a happy Valentine’s Day complete with flowers or a goodie basket,” the website says. “This might turn out to be the most rewarding day of your life. If you choose this route, be sure to have some tissues as it could turn into a teary experience for both of you.”

In previous years, I’ve written cards to cancer survivors through the American Cancer Society Relay For Life events I’m involved with.

Last week, I wrote that men will spend roughly $175.61 on everything from candy, jewelry and dinner for their companion, according to a National Retail Federation study. That same study says women will spend $88.78 on their sweetheart.

So if for nothing else, single folks have a chance to save some cash this week.

While stores, the media and friends likely will talk about the impending day, it is important to remember that if you are single this Valentine’s Day, it’s not the end of the world.

Whether you’re single by choice or by life’s agenda, don’t let that descriptor define who you are.

With half of the country considered single, it’s clear you’re not alone.