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.
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 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.
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 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.”
“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.
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?”
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?
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.