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Facing Forward: Making a Difference in Cancer

  • Posted: 01/20/2011

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Things to think about before you start

“Before I started volunteering, I needed to make sure I was ready to help someone else. I knew I couldn’t help others if I was still trying to heal myself.”
— Jason, 32, cancer survivor

People with cancer, as well as those who love and care about them, may want to participate in cancer-related activities. But it’s important to ask, “Is this the right time to get involved?”

The following questions are for you to think about before taking part in cancer activities. There are no wrong answers, and they may differ for each person. Try to think about what’s best for you at this time in your life.

Am I ready to get involved?

When affected by cancer, volunteering in cancer activities can be a natural reaction for some and a bigger decision for others. It’s important to be thoughtful about your reasons for wanting to take part.

For example, you may not be ready yet if you:

  • Are focused more on your own needs than the needs of others
  • Want to talk a lot about your problems with other people
  • Feel lonely and want to be with others who understand what you’re going through
  • Wonder if taking part will be a constant reminder of your cancer

People need time to deal with their feelings and make sense of their cancer experience. If you need to, talk with a counselor, spiritual advisor, psychologist, or your oncology social worker about your feelings and concerns. Joining a support group may help as well.
You can always get involved later, when you’re truly ready to help others.

How is your health?

“I feel every day is special. So once I was well enough, I wanted to start helping others feel this way, too!”
— Dotty, 74, cancer survivor

Think about your own health issues before you decide to give back. Decide if you have enough energy or time to start a new project. Some people want to wait until their health is better. Others choose something that’s easy for them to do now. If you’re in treatment or have recently finished, talk to your oncologist before trying something new. If you have advanced cancer, decide if you have the health and strength to get involved right now.

What are your feelings?

People often think about their own experience when they take part in a cancer-related activity. This is good for some, because it helps them deal with their own feelings. Others find it upsetting. They realize the issues are “too close to home” for them. Or they realize that learning about others’ struggles with cancer is hard to bear.

Take some time to think about your feelings. If you tend to feel very worried, angry, or depressed right now, you might want to talk with a counselor or social worker. Later, when you feel better, you can think about ways to help others.

What are you comfortable talking about?

It’s your choice to share what you want to with others about your own experience with cancer. You can still get involved in cancer-related programs even if you don’t want to talk about yourself. If this is how you feel, find activities that don’t require you to share your personal feelings or thoughts. There are plenty of ideas in this book that may help you.

What can you give?

Many people feel they don’t have a lot of time to volunteer, but there are still ways they can help others. For example, you can donate money, books, or clothing that other people need for their cancer care. Some people even grow their hair out to donate for wigs.

Where do you live?

If you live in a rural area, or somewhere with no cancer programs nearby, you might have to look for other ways to get involved. You can, for example, start a new project in your community. Or you could plan small gatherings to raise awareness or money. You could also choose to take part in an activity by phone, mail, or over the Internet.

What are your skills and interests?

What do you like to do with your time? Everyone has an interest or skill that can help others. This includes talents, cultural or spiritual activities, and even your hobbies. Consider what you like, don’t like, and subjects you want to learn more about.

Here are some examples of talents or skills that many people have used to make a difference in cancer.

  • Listening. Let people tell their stories and express their concerns. Answer questions without giving your opinion or advice, trying to solve problems, or passing judgment.

  • Support. Help others by offering to do errands, baby-sit, or drive them to appointments.

  • Enthusiasm. Be a cheerleader and motivate others if they need support trying to get things done. With organizations, you could help organize events or work on campaigns. Or, you could help with team sports or outdoor activities for cancer fundraising.

  • Creativity. Come up with new ideas or use your talents, such as knitting, cooking, building, scrapbooking, or repair work.

  • Technology. Help people or non-profit organizations develop or enhance a Web site, teach people how to use a computer, or help with Internet searches.

  • Learning and teaching. Teach or train others in your area of expertise. Take classes to learn new information and then teach others what you know.

  • Communication. You can get your ideas across by writing cancer-related articles or speaking in public. Or you could have an online diary, called a blog. This is where people post their thoughts and comments to share with others on the Internet.

  • Group work. Work with others and be part of a team. For example, you could work with your job, school, or place of worship to help raise awareness.

  • Office skills. Use the computer, answer phones, or organize records and files for a cancer organization or office.

  • Organizational skills. Plan meetings, events, or group activities, like organizing a phone call alert list or “tree,” planning a fundraiser, or starting a local support group.

  • Leadership skills. Take charge of a program or project. Get people to work together on an activity.

Even if you’re not sure about your skills or talents, the next section may give you ideas for what kinds of cancer-related activities will interest and inspire you.

Finding ways to make a difference

“Whenever somebody says to me, ‘I could never get up in front of thousands of people and speak like you do,’ I always say, ‘You don’t have to.’”
— Erica, 26, cancer survivor

There are a number of areas where you can find ways to be an advocate in cancer. These include outreach and education, giving support, fundraising, research, or policy issues. Each area may have things you like to do, and that match your interests.

As you read the lists below, think about which items describe you, or note the ones that catch your interest the most. Look at the things that you have experience, skills, or knowledge in doing.

Helping others

  • I like to meet new people.
  • I’m good at listening to others.
  • I like to share cancer information with others.
  • I want to help people who are struggling with cancer.
  • People helped me/us during treatment, and now I want to do the same for others.

Learning and teaching

  • I would like to teach people more about cancer.
  • I like to talk with people—even people I don’t know.
  • I like to speak in front of groups of people.
  • I enjoy talking about issues that are important to me, like cancer screening or giving support to people with cancer.

Working on cancer-related events

  • I like working with people and being part of events.
  • I would like to help with a local event—near where I live or work.
  • I want to get involved but only have time to help once in a while.
  • I’m comfortable asking people to donate to cancer-related causes.
  • I’m interested in giving money, computers, or other items to a cancer-related cause.
  • I like having small parties or gatherings.

Working in policy

  • I want to help change the health care system for others with cancer.
  • I want to see changes in laws and policies related to cancer.
  • I like the idea of talking to elected officials about cancer issues.
  • I like to share my ideas with others through phone calls, letters, or e-mails.
  • I want to be part of a network that alerts people to important cancer issues.

Working in research

  • I find science very interesting.
  • I may be interested in taking part in a research study or clinical trial.
  • I want to let others know about research studies and clinical trials.
  • I like the idea of talking with scientists about my opinions on cancer, and my experiences with it.

Working in government programs

  • I want to work on programs that help people with cancer.
  • I would like to help more people get screened for cancer.
  • I think I would be comfortable talking about cancer with scientists and public health officials.
  • I would like to know how new medicines and treatments are developed and approved.