The past month has been a whirlwind on many levels. I am a high school English teacher, so the typical end of the year busyness accounted for some of that. Also, because Grafton, the town in Massachusetts where I teach, has grown so much, we have outgrown our school and are moving in to a brand new building in the fall. Needless to say, packing up 18 years of teaching materials was a project.
I mention my school life here because it is so relevant to the work I do with No Stomach For Cancer. I have always felt that teaching is a privilege. I especially love teaching high school English because the curriculum allows me to have discussions with students about so many important topics; through our study of literature and through writing, we explore “the human condition,” the shared experiences that all people have regardless of where they live or when they lived. All people experience so many emotions…..joy, sadness, hope, despair, love, hate, to name just a few.
In 2005, when my brother Steve was diagnosed with stomach cancer, the students knew about it as I sometimes missed school in order to go to the hospital while he was having a procedure done, etc. I did not go out of my way to share all of the details about his illness or condition with them, but they knew that I was going through a difficult time. They were supportive and caring when he passed away in November 2006.
When I returned to school in 2007, I shared with my students that I would be out for a while as I was having my stomach removed because the cancer that took Steve’s life was hereditary and I had the genetic mutation that caused it. They wrote cards, made food, and sent encouraging e-mails while I recovered from the surgery. When I returned to teaching, they understood that I was adjusting to a life changing procedure and that I needed them to be flexible.
Although the students who were in my classes when Steve was diagnosed have graduated, other students have come along and provided the same support along this journey. Students know of my involvement on the Board of Directors of No Stomach For Cancer, and they continue show their support by being actively involved in raising awareness about and funds for stomach cancer.
In 2010, No Stomach For Cancer, working with the US Senate, established November as National Stomach Cancer Awareness Month. It was exciting to know that there would be a time designated formally to raise awareness and it was our hope that we could make a difference. This all happened at a critical time in my life. My mom, the person who initially tested positive for the genetic marker in our family, had been diagnosed on July 28th, 2010 for a second time with colon cancer, which is the third cancer that, along with stomach cancer and lobular breast cancer, is caused by this CDH1 mutation. Her prognosis was not good, and she died on November 21, 2010~ four years to the day that my brother Steve died.
Meanwhile, the entire Grafton school community was amazing and continued to show their support. I had approached Mrs. Marcia Pereira, the advisor to the National Honor Society, and asked if she thought the students would be willing to do something as part of Stomach Cancer Awareness Month. Her response was a resounding yes, and the kids have been involved ever since. For the past two years, the kids have raised awareness and funds in different ways. One student created a power point presentation about stomach cancer that ran in the school lobby during a week Grafton High School designated as Stomach Cancer Awareness Week. Other students sold wristbands, t-shirts, and raffle tickets before school and at football games. Students worked tirelessly to help raise awareness, and they did, indeed, make a difference.
Last year, I was privileged to attend an event called ‘the one hundred’ sponsored by Massachusetts General Hospital’s Cancer Center; it is an annual fundraiser at which 100 people, organizations, etc., who have been nominated by someone, are recognized for their efforts in raising awareness/funds for cancer. Karen Chelcun Schreiber, the Founder of No Stomach For Cancer, was nominated by Rose Evans, a member of the NSFC community and was able to bring a guest to the event. I was honored that she asked me to attend what turned out to be such a powerful event. The night was spent in a room filled with approximately 900 people who had gathered because they care about cancer and had been affected by it in some way. We heard so many moving stories. By the end of the evening, Karen and I both wished we could help the other organizations that are out there doing such meaningful, impactful work.
After watching the kids at Grafton High School raise awareness for stomach cancer this past November, I knew they were worthy of being considered as a possible honoree at ‘the one hundred’. I wrote my nominating letter in mid-December, and in mid-February, Grafton High School was notified that they had been among the 100 to be honored at their gala event on June 7th. There were over 800 nominees, and the students in Grafton’s National Honor Society would be recognized among ‘the one hundred’. I was so proud of them and was so happy that their hard work was recognized by a world-class organization such as Mass General Hospital.
Mass General did an incredible job of making the kids understand that their efforts made a difference. On May 10th, the students attended Mass General’s official kick off ceremony for ‘the one hundred’. The President of the Cancer Center spoke for several minutes about the Grafton students and what they had accomplished. Also, Mass General had arranged for the students to speak with an oncology nurse and a genetic counselor about stomach cancer for over an hour. It was a wonderful learning experience.
A few days later, Mass General contacted Grafton to see if the students would be willing to help bead bracelets that would be given out at the June 7th Gala event when people made donations. Students responded enthusiastically and, not only did they help make the bracelets, they were invited to help distribute them the night of the event.
I was excited that the students would have the opportunity to be part of such an important night. Students were able to see first hand the power of helping others. They were able to see the generosity of people who contributed financially to help in the fight. They knew that their efforts were as important as the efforts of the doctors, researchers, and others who were recognized and in attendance that night.
On the ride home from the event, I asked students what they would remember the most about the night. Yes, they would remember that Matt Damon was there and that he mentioned Grafton High School by name on several occasions, but the general consensus of the fifteen students who attended was that they would remember the people from all walks of life coming together to fight cancer. They realized that they and Matt Damon and everyone in between were all the same that night. They were strangers but united in a powerful way.
What the students experienced that night is just a small glimpse of what I am blessed to experience daily in the work I do with No Stomach For Cancer. Daily I am able to work toward our mission of “uniting the caring power of people worldwide affected by stomach cancer” thanks to the incredible people who make up the No Stomach For Cancer community, people who were once strangers, but have the unfortunate but deep connection of having been affected by stomach cancer.
To me, the students of Grafton, the scientists and medical professionals on our Scientific Advisory Council, those who have in some way been affected by stomach cancer, those who visit our web site and Facebook page, and, those who raise awareness by sharing their stories ~all of us working together will help rid the world of stomach cancer.