By Kevin Begos
Agents of Change
Patient advocates and fundraisers are never too young to have an impact on cancer
By Kevin Begos
It can feel like an impossible goal amid the feelings of turmoil and loss that often come with cancer. But some young people are using the same enthusiasm their friends bring to playing in Little League games to raising money for cancer research and to comforting others in need.
There seems to be a new awareness of philanthropy among younger generations, says Marilyn Emas, the executive director of development at the University of Miami Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center. “They want to be change agents. They want to be advocates and fundraisers. I think they’ve seen the impact of cancer on people they love. And this is how they are reacting to cancer: They want to change it.” Other young people are reaching out personally to peers who have cancer—often by using the internet to stay in touch and offer support.
Sometimes this mature understanding of cancer’s financial and emotional demands emerges at a very young age, and the motivation often comes from children’s own experiences.
Rama Bushra Imad, Arabella Uhry and Austin Gaines all had their childhoods interrupted by cancer in different ways. For Rama, now 11 and living in Houston, it was the diagnosis of her father with brain cancer in 2000 and his death two years ago. For Arabella, now 11 and living in New York City, it was the death of a terminally ill girl she had befriended a few years earlier. And for Austin, now 22 and living in Miami, it was the breast cancer that his mother faced when he was 12 years old.
These days, Rama signs off her e-mails with phrases like “Have a Fun-tastic Day” and “Thanks again!” But her mother, Sheema Farah Nasir, says that Rama was behaving quite differently when her father was ill. “It was really affecting her. She wouldn’t talk. She was becoming a little bit negative. I had to send her for counseling,” Nasir says.
Rama’s change in perspective seemed to come about by accident. It was 2004, and her father’s cancer was in remission. She mostly avoided TV except for the news and weather, but one day a commercial for Houston’s M. D. Anderson Cancer Center appeared before the news, and Rama saw a new possibility. She was just in second grade.
“I decided I’d do fundraisers for them” to help fund cancer research, says Rama, who asked her mother for permission. “I was like, yeah, that’s a good idea, maybe then we can have more positive thinking in our lives,” Nasir says.
Rama, a talented artist who has won several contests, began making beaded brooches and decorative pins to sell at school. A teacher at her school was very encouraging, even though there were bureaucratic hurdles to work out with district officials, who were initially unsure about sponsoring a fundraising event.