Everything you’ve ever wanted is on the other side of fear. My experience with cancer was by far the most difficult experience I’ve had in my life. I never thought I would have to confront my mortality at such a young age or go through the physical side effects that I have. However, it’s a liberating experience to go through one of the scariest experiences I can imagine and come out on the other side. Moving past the fear was difficult, but when I did, I realized that if I could make it through cancer, there wouldn’t be anything I would be afraid of doing again!
Cancer is a horrible and terrifying disease. There is so much great information out there, but sometimes it is very difficult to filter out the noise. What causes cancer? Can it be prevented? How do you detect it? What are the odds of survival today? What are the different forms of cancer? What are the best treatments? And what is the best way to support someone impacted by cancer?
In this interview series called, “5 Things Everyone Needs To Know About Cancer” we are talking to experts about cancer such as oncologists, researchers, and medical directors to address these questions. As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ashley Yesayan.
Ashley Yesayan is the founder and CEO of OneVillage, an online platform connecting cancer patients, survivors, and supporters with the community, content, tools, and specialty products they need to make life easier. She founded the business based on her own experience with breast cancer, which she beat in 2017.
Before founding OneVillage, Ashley spent ten years as a venture capital investor focused on consumer technology. Earlier in her career, she managed the new business launch and incubation at Red Ventures, the leading global player in data-driven consumer marketing, and worked in the investment banking group at Wells Fargo Securities. Ashley earned a B.A. in Economics and English from Wake Forest University and an M.B.A. from Columbia Business School.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
I grew up in rural South Carolina, where my parents owned one of the local gas stations. It wasn’t an easy childhood or adolescence for me for a host of reasons, and then as I was entering high school, my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. She continues to battle metastatic breast cancer today, and 25 years later, the physical and emotional scars cancer has left on our family are still palpable. It is truly humbling to have the opportunity to give other families the chance to have a less isolating and traumatic experience than ours was.
What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.
One day five years ago, on a day just like any other day, I found myself sitting in a hospital room with a doctor telling me that I had cancer. As a consumer tech investor, of course the first thing I did was to open up my browser to see what I could find to help me navigate this devastating, confusing, and frightening ordeal. I grew to rely on consumer technologies that helped me plan and navigate weddings and baby showers for friends and family members. But then, at a particularly fragile moment in time, I found myself desperately trying to find someplace that would help me navigate cancer and connect with other people like me. Most of what was out there was outdated and poorly designed, and all of it lacked the consumer touch I craved. Financial Technology (FinTech) and Insurance Technology (InsurTech) had both become consumerized over the last five years, but where was this with cancer tech? It took me some time to heal physically and emotionally from my cancer treatment, but in late 2020 I knew it was time to bring my network, experience, and passion to solving this problem and giving people who are fighting cancer and their families the technology they deserve.
This is not easy work. What is your primary motivation and drive behind the work that you do?
It wasn’t until I was diagnosed with cancer myself that I came to realize how stark and clinical the landscape is for technology designed for people living with cancer, or any other chronic condition for that matter. Hospital systems and payors don’t have the resources to build and maintain complex software for this purpose, and until mid-2021, the “cancer tech” category didn’t even exist, so venture backing for tech companies in the sector has been recent.
I know there is a gap in providing patients and their loved ones the community and non-medical support they so desperately need, and I wake up every day excited about our potential to change lives.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
All of my focus is on OneVillage, the company I founded last year. OneVillage is the website I wish existed while I was going through my own breast cancer diagnosis, which is why making a safe community resource is so important to me. When I searched for modern, trustworthy resources to help during my cancer treatment, I was shocked by how few existed. More than 2 million people are newly diagnosed with cancer each year in the United States, and yet there is no tool that has resources like relatable content, specialty products, and community all in one place.
OneVillage is the solution cancer patients, supporters, and survivors need. It is the first and only online community center for people navigating cancer to find a curated, medically-approved selection of everything they need in one place. Our goal is to provide a personalized experience for everyone that joins because we know how life-changing a cancer diagnosis really is. After a short and intuitive sign-up process, a personalized OneVillage home page is showcased to every user, allowing them to find exactly what they need, right when they need it. We want to reduce the overwhelm that a lot of people feel alongside a cancer diagnosis. We also allow users to opt into various special interest groups that are filled with other OneVillage users who have shared experiences, a continuous feed of relatable content, and product recommendations posted by community members.
For the benefit of our readers, can you briefly let us know why you are an authority about the topic of Cancer?
I am a cancer survivor myself and have seen many friends and family through their own diagnosis and treatment. The odds are that you know at least two people who have been diagnosed with cancer, and you’ll support at least four of your friends and family through a diagnosis in your lifetime. Going through that experience for the first time is scary, isolating, and overwhelming, whether you’re a supporter or the patient yourself. I felt all those feelings, and I want to use my experience to help the next generation of patients and supporters have better support.
Ok, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Let’s start with some basic definitions so that we are all on the same page. What is exactly cancer?
I’m not a doctor, so I’d like to say upfront that it’s always best to consult medical professionals when talking about a disease as complicated as cancer. That’s why OneVillage is supported by our Medical Review Board, a group of doctors, oncologists, patient navigators, and nurses who review everything that goes onto OneVillage to ensure it is medically sound.
That being said, cancer at its most basic is when your body’s cells grow uncontrollably and abnormally, destroying healthy body tissue. This can occur anywhere in the body, which is why there are many types of cancer with different symptoms, treatments, and complications.
What causes cancer?
There are many different causes of cancer, some environmental and some that are still unknown. One of the most important things to know is that often, cancer can be linked to genetic history, so it’s good to understand your family health history. That way, you’ll know what early cancer screenings you should be keeping up with because it’s always best to catch cancer at an early stage, regardless of the type.
Just because your family doesn’t have a history of genetic abnormalities, it’s no reason you should put off having all of the preventative screenings you can. In my case, for example, my mother and I have no genetic markers linked to cancer of any type, yet we both have the same type of breast cancer. Just because you don’t have any of the known markers doesn’t mean that there is one you do have that simply hasn’t been identified yet.
What is the difference between the different forms of cancer?
There are over 100 types of cancer, and they have many differences in symptoms, treatments, and outcomes. But the one thing they have in common is the need for community — that’s why nonprofit organizations support all kinds of cancer types. Connecting with other people who you can discuss your treatments and symptoms with is invaluable because it removes that feeling of isolation, which is a major cause of depression in most cases and medical-related PTSD in at least 20% of cases.
OneVillage will be a place where people can connect with others who have a shared experience, be it the type of cancer you’re living with, being a parent, or having an interest in food & nutrition.
I know that the next few questions are huge topics, but we’d love to hear your thoughts regardless. How can cancer be prevented?
This one is a hard one. It’s not a simple answer, and if it were, I’m sure all the brilliant doctors would have already figured it out. As I understand it, everyone has a different amount of toxins that their body can adequately handle without creating any type of genetic mutation (i.e., cancer). I might be able to have more or less than you, regardless of whether we’re in the same household, share genetics, etc. At some point, many of us have filled our bucket to the point that evidence of genetic mutation, or cancer, is discovered and often treated. So the best way of preventing cancer then is to make sure that you’re contributing as few toxins to your proverbial bucket as possible.
I am not a doctor, so my personal perspective should be taken with a grain of salt, but I do believe that stress played a role in my diagnosis. Working on keeping your mental and physical health in good condition would be my recommendation to anyone looking for a way to reduce their risk.
How can one detect the main forms of cancer?
Early screening is key and is what saved my life. There are various early screening tests for different cancer types, and a doctor will recommend these if any of your symptoms align with common symptoms of a cancer type. But there are some cancers that don’t show serious symptoms until later stages, so being your own health advocate is so important. You know your body, and if something feels off, ask for the tests you know you need. It’s better to get a screening test and have a solid answer than wait until things get more serious.
Cancer used to almost be a death sentence, but it seems that it has changed today. What are the odds of surviving cancer today?
A new report released by the American Cancer Society, the National Cancer Institute, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and other collaborators found that between 2014 and 2018, death rates dropped for 11 out of 19 of the most common cancers among men and 14 of the 20 most prevalent cancers among women. The odds of death from any particular type of cancer vary, but what is a more important question to ask is whether the research funding is going to the right places to reduce that even further.
Currently, the majority of cancer funding in the United States goes to funding for breast cancer and leukemia, which cause the fewest amounts of deaths of cancer patients. Cancers that are disproportionately large killers, such as lung cancer, get the smallest amount of research funding based on their public perception.
But at OneVillage, we don’t recommend thinking about the odds. A lot of people will consult ‘Dr. Google’ for these questions; that’s a guaranteed path to extra worry and stress you don’t need. You aren’t a statistic, you’re a human, and you never know what life has in front of you.
Instead of focusing on the ‘odds of survival,’ we want to focus on all the ways we can provide support for whatever type of stage of cancer people are going through. Having access to these resources, like advice from survivors and a community of people like you, can make all the difference in your mental health. In turn, mental health impacts your overall health. The ‘odds of survival’ don’t have to be the end all be all when you’re first diagnosed.
Healing usually takes place between doctor visits. What have you found to be most beneficial to assist a patient to heal?
Community support, accurate advice, a good relationship with your oncology team, and access to the products that can provide pain relief (just to name a few)! In my own personal experience, I was a single woman living alone at the time of my cancer, so being able to get support from my friends that were far away was so important. A tool like OneVillage allows a patient to organize their support system more easily, relieving stress and leaving more time for healing.
From your experience, what are a few of the best ways to support a loved one, friend, or colleague who is impacted by cancer?
Now, this is a question I have a lot of experience in. My best piece of advice for supporters is this: show up. Then keep showing up. It can be hard for patients to ask for help, especially if that’s not something they’re used to doing in their life before diagnosis.
Put a reminder in your phone to call them once a week, or even just once a month. After the initial onslaught of gifts and cards, when you share your first diagnosis, a lot of people disappear. Especially if the person with cancer is far less social than they used to be.
Be the friend or family member that shows up with a plate of cookies two days after treatment or the person who offers a ride to the treatment center just because you know that will make their life easier. It’s not about extravagance. For a lot of people, it’s the little reminders that their community is with them and rooting for them that matter.
What are a few of the biggest misconceptions and myths out there about fighting cancer that you would like to dispel?
Oh boy, I could go on forever with this one. There are so many misconceptions about what it means to have cancer of any kind, and even more about all the different types and stages. Not everyone loses their hair; not everyone looks sick; not everyone chooses to go through chemo or radiation; we aren’t always sad, but more importantly: it’s not a death sentence.
The fact is, cancer is a chronic illness, and there have always been stigmas around what it means to have an ongoing health issue. If you’re someone who has never had cancer, don’t assume you know what they’re going through. Instead, ask thoughtful questions that allow you to better support them. Everyone’s experience will be different, and to assume ‘cancer’ is just one thing is wrong.
Thank you so much for all of that. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experiences and knowledge, what are your “5 Things Everyone Needs To Know About Cancer? Please share a story or example for each.
Here are the five things I think everyone should know about cancer:
- The rest of your life keeps going, even if it feels like it shouldn’t. I felt this when I was going through my own diagnosis, especially because I was a young person. Your peers are living life as normal, but all of a sudden, your world has halted. It’s important to give yourself the space to mourn the life you’d been planning before diagnosis, but also keep in mind that your cancer journey will not define you. It’s a key part of the experience you’re having right now, but you don’t have to be defined by it.
- You need to be your own health advocate. We are taught to trust doctors, and we should, but they’re also human people who make mistakes. And organizations as large as hospital networks make mistakes too. If you feel something is not right with your treatment plan or oncology team, speak up. You can always get a second opinion, and enlisting a friend or family member to help you with research can also be very valuable.
- There will be good days and bad days. That’s life. But with cancer, it can feel like the difference is so huge, especially when one day you’re too sick to stand and a week later you’re feeling good enough to go out and about for the first time in months. Embrace those good feeling days. Rest on the ones that are bad, don’t beat yourself up for feeling sad, and know that you’re not the first to go through all of this (even if it feels like it, which leads me to my next point). Patterns will start to emerge around what medications you’re taking and what other external factors may be going on in your life, so using a symptom and pain tracker like the one we have on the site is key in maximizing your ability to predict the good days and get as much enjoyment out of them as possible!
- You aren’t alone in this. It can feel like you are. That’s why community is so important. If you can go to in-person support groups, that’s fantastic, but there is also a community of people online that know what it’s like. Find them and surround yourself with loved ones who will be there when you need them.
- Everything you’ve ever wanted is on the other side of fear. My experience with cancer was by far the most difficult experience I’ve had in my life. I never thought I would have to confront my mortality at such a young age or go through the physical side effects that I have. However, it’s a liberating experience to go through one of the scariest experiences I can imagine and come out on the other side. Moving past the fear was difficult, but when I did, I realized that if I could make it through cancer, there wouldn’t be anything I would be afraid of doing again!
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
Honestly, OneVillage is that movement. I think we need a trustworthy place to all come together, to share advice, recommendations, and more, because we are far more powerful together than apart. Every person that has had any experience with cancer has valuable information that they’ve learned. That’s why some patients pass on binders of information to their friends when they’re diagnosed. I don’t think this should be isolated to the people within your local community, but instead available to anyone across the world who could use that information to better treat their own disease. We’ve seen the power of communities coming together in so many other places, and I know that the cancer community is a strong one.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Anyone who is navigating cancer can use OneVillage for free. Visit onevillage.io to get started.
Thank you so much for these insights! This was very inspirational and we wish you continued success in your great work.