Sunday, November 18, 2012

Thanks, cancer by Kathryn Ferrara


A note from Allison W. Gryphon: 
In creating the Why? Foundation, working on the documentary What the F@#- is Cancer and Why Does Everybody Have it? and fighting my own cancer openly, many unexpected and extraordinary people have come into my life. Most surprisingly and disturbing are the number of young people who have faced cancer themselves or helped others fight the fight. Most recently I met Kathryn Ferrara, a recent college graduate, with unfortunately and fortunately, a profound understanding on what it’s like to stand by someone struck by cancer.

Thanks, cancer by Kathryn Ferrara

I have been surrounded by cancer my whole life, and I never really knew it. I center my life on a few key things, three of which are my family, my faith and my work. And cancer has tangibly left its mark on all of them. Here are three ways it has shaped those pillars.

Mind over matter. Literally.
There’s the saying that if you haven’t had cancer, then you know someone who has. True enough for me since the day I was born. I have a grandfather who survived colon cancer back when it was less curable and more terminal. He was in his mid-forties, and it didn’t look good. I mean, when does cancer ever look good? It doesn’t. But my grandfather was stubborn. There are supposedly five stages of grief in accepting a terminal illness (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance). Well, my grandfather never got past denial. He simply refused the prognosis and shut the door on death. Everyone in my family agrees that he survived on sheer mental willpower. He passed that on to my mom who passed it on to her kids, including me. He also passed along a passion for literature and writing. My first gift that my grandfather gave me was a copy of Poe’s “The Raven” with his notes in the margin. Now I have a stack of poems from my grandfather and a journalism degree that was inspired by them. Now every October when we celebrate my grandfather’s birthday, I’m that much more thankful. Oh and he turned 81 last month. Denial has doubled his life. So, thanks cancer.

Slap in the face
My grandfather had the good kind of denial when it came to cancer. I experienced the “too-bad-to-be-true” kind of denial in high school. I was in ninth grade. It was a Monday in December, and I started talking with a friend about a sixth grader, Molly, who was battling leukemia and how it was great that the whole school was really coming together and supporting each other (blah blah clichés). My friend paused and said that Molly had died over the weekend. I hadn’t heard. The news cut through all those dumb clichés. It’s unfair that an 11-year-old’s death is what it takes to shake off clichés in general. Up until that point, my whole life was a cliché. After, things got more real. How I looked at life. How I thought about faith and the future. It all became more real. So for that, thanks cancer.

Not just a job
Two years into college, and it was time to finally find a real job (read: unpaid internship). About a hundred applications later, and I was offered a summer internship at The National Children’s Cancer Society. It was ideal career-wise since I’d be dabbling in marketing communications, social media management and getting a feel for the non-profit scene. But it was also ideal life-wise. Transformative really in how I thought about careers. The NCCS is all about passion. The organization is on a very clear-cut mission to help childhood cancer survivors and their families. I can only speak for the marketing side of the organization, but every decision, from the organization’s re-branding to the monthly survivor spotlight story, was important. Each decision carried a heavier weight, i.e. these cancer survivors. It’s the kind of work that not only sustains you but motivates you and encourages you to keep working. It’s the kind of the work that inspires you to jump in the deep end and reach out to people who are fighting cancer, ignorant of cancer or scared of cancer.

So here I am, mid-twenties, and just starting to realize and accept cancer’s role in my life. I never really knew it until I started to think about the big question, “how does cancer affect me?” And darn it, that sneaky little sucker has affected me a lot. It’s made me appreciate a family member more; it’s made me cast off a clichéd life for a more grounded one; it’s made my work less self-centered and more others-centered. So for that, thanks cancer.