By Lynne O’Brien, Policy Analyst, White House Cancer Moonshot Task Force
The day I was diagnosed with leukemia in February 2012 was a busy one. As my doctor carefully went over my test results and explained next steps, the news did not sink in. I was not hearing that I had cancer; my head was full of things I needed to do when I left the office to prepare for arriving-any-minute house guests, a play at school, and a busy sports schedule for my three children. And my husband was stuck on a runway in New York. And, as usual, my phone was dead. I didn’t have time for leukemia. As I drove home the realization of what he said began to take hold. Slowly, I saw that my life was forever changed.
I had cancer.
From that day to this one, I became first a patient, then an advocate, a fighter, a fundraiser, and an expert on my cancer. I began a four-year journey to save my own life, trying to understand an odyssey of clinical trials, chemotherapy, endless doctor visits, and a reverence for one of the most exalted words one can hear: “remission.” Almost exactly four years later, on the night of January 12, 2016, just months after finishing my last chemo treatment and feeling cautiously hopeful, I settled in to watch President Barack Obama’s final State of the Union Address. And for the second time, the word cancer was about to change my life.
“Last year, Vice President Biden said that with a new moonshot, America can cure cancer… So tonight, I’m announcing a new national effort to get it done…
For the loved ones we’ve all lost, for the families that we can still save, let’s make America the country that cures cancer once and for all.” — President Obama
This time I was not distracted. I jumped up off the couch with tears of joy in my eyes. I immediately posted his words on Facebook with the comment “I’m in!” And within minutes I had dozens of “likes” and comments from friends and family remembering those we have lost or those who are struggling. So many were asking, “What can I do?” and offering, “Let’s help!” The sense of helplessness I had felt since my own diagnosis was replaced with hope and a tremendous calling. I felt like President Obama was speaking to me, and I was up for the challenge.
That night I made a decision to fight cancer, to do whatever I could do to make Vice President Joe Biden’s challenge a reality. I didn’t know how or what I was going to do but I was going to do it. This was my Moonshot too. I remembered how excited I felt when, at seven years old, my parents woke me up in the middle of that hot summer night in 1969 to see the moon landing. I still remember where I sat and what that black and white television looked like. Would this be the moon landing for my kids? As President Obama concluded his address over an hour later, he called upon ordinary citizens to do extraordinary and inspirational things, which further fueled my excitement.
As a child, I loved hearing stories of how people came together and sacrificed during World War II. People collected scraps, folded bandages, knit blankets and wrote to soldiers, all working to defeat tyranny. The Cancer Moonshot is a similar challenge — bringing diverse experts and ordinary people together to accomplish in the laboratory and in the clinic in five years what would have taken ten. The Moonshot challenges us all to fight the tyranny of cancer, to work fast and to work together.
At the Cancer Moonshot Summit in June, the Vice President welcomed a diverse group of scientists, business people, patient advocates and others to brainstorm to find ways to bring new treatments from the laboratory to the patient more quickly and more affordably. The mood was electric. But real change and progress will need to involve more than just hundreds of people who participated that day.
This is where YOU as an individual can help.
Everyone has different skills, strengths, and resources and no effort is too small. The ways to participate are so varied. Get online and look at cancer.serve.gov to find ways to volunteer in your community. There are over 1,000 volunteer opportunities nationwide, and more being added every day! Some ideas:
- If you enjoy writing or speaking, you can make your voice heard as a cancer advocate.
- You can do anything from hosting a lemonade stand to participating in a walk to raise money research or cancer care.
- If you are healthy, you can participate in a wellness study or donate tissue; if you have cancer, you can participate in a clinical trial.
- Give blood or swab your cheek to be a bone marrow match.
- Volunteer your time at a local hospital or cancer organization.
The list really is endless.
Maybe your skill is helping your friends in every day ways such as assisting with grocery shopping and chores, driving to treatment. or making a meal. If you are a survivor, consider mentoring a patient. Implement your own local program for prevention such as anti smoking for teens. Or set up a partnership in your community to offer free sunscreen at playgrounds or beaches — I recently learned of an effort like this in Miami Beach where sunscreen is being distributed for free. How extraordinary! As small as the letter to a soldier or donating metal scraps may have seemed during WWII, we know that every one of these actions helps.
What else can you do? Please, please make sure that you do whatever you can do to prevent cancer or find it early — don’t smoke, healthy habits, cancer screenings and vaccinations are so important.
While I have yet to achieve remission, I am hopeful that I will continue to have new treatments available for my leukemia. I am grateful that my focus on my own cancer has now become a focus on the Cancer Moonshot. And I am optimistic that the Moonshot will change history. As a person with cancer and now as an advocate, I am asked all the time by others what I once asked of myself, “What can I do?” And the answer remains, “Everything you can.”
I’m fully committed to this effort to make another one of the most exalted words in the English language a common one: cure.
Lynne O’Brien is a moonshot dreamer, Leukemia survivor, lawyer, mother of three, and White House Cancer Moonshot Task Force policy analyst.