Donating time in the cancer community after treatment brings benefits for both volunteers and those they help.
Connie Porter, then 50, had just celebrated Christmas with her family in 2016 when she learned she had stage 2a invasive ductal breast cancer. “My sister extended her holiday visit to see some doctors with me, and I was grateful for her support, but then I was on my own for a few appointments until my first surgery,” says the Houston resident.
During her first solo appointment at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Porter was approached by a volunteer. “I wasn’t in a good place mentally,” Porter recalls. “My stress and anxiety levels were sky-high, but the volunteer listened to me and shared her own experiences with breast cancer. By the end of that talk, I was filled with so much hope.”
During subsequent visits, Porter sought out that same volunteer. “I shared things that you wouldn’t normally tell a stranger,” she says. “Then again, we didn’t feel like strangers anymore.” A tribe of MD Anderson volunteers shepherded Porter through a mastectomy, chemotherapy and multiple medical appointments. “I told myself that I would give back in the same way as soon as I was able,” says Porter, who began volunteering at MD Anderson in April 2018. “It’s truly one of the most fulfilling things I’ve ever done. Every week, I know that I’ve made a real and significant difference in someone’s life, even if for just a few minutes. I started volunteering to help others, but I’ve discovered that by spreading a message of hope and healing, I continue to heal myself from the trauma of my cancer experience.”
I started volunteering to help others, but I’ve discovered that by spreading a message of hope and healing, I continue to heal myself from the trauma of my cancer experience.” —CONNIE PORTER, survivor
THE BENEFITS OF GIVING BACK
Porter is among a growing number of people who freely give their time and services to help others. More than a third of American adults (an estimated 77 million) volunteered in 2017, 6 percent of them in a health-related field, according to the Corporation for National and Community Service. “Volunteers are our most valuable asset. We wouldn’t exist without them,” says Erin O’Neill, vice president of volunteer engagement and grassroots strategies for the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network (ACS CAN).
According to O’Neill, the majority of ACS volunteers come to the organization for one of two reasons: They want to use their experiences with cancer to help others facing a similar situation or they want to fight back against the disease that upended their lives. “There’s a combined desire to help others, to generate more funding for research, to increase awareness and education, to detect the disease earlier and to find better, lifesaving treatments,” O’Neill says. “A unifying goal is to save and protect future generations from this disease.”
Although some people are understandably too traumatized after a cancer experience to immerse themselves in that world again, others readily give back to the organizations that provided support through some of their darkest days. This type of altruism does more than positively affect those on the receiving end: The act of doing good makes the volunteers feel better.
Various studies show that people who give their time are less prone to feelings of loneliness and depression, perhaps due to the social connections they make while volunteering. Do-gooders also enjoy physical health benefits, such as lower blood pressure and stress levels and even a longer life span. Findings suggest that people with serious or chronic illness who volunteer receive benefits beyond what medical care can offer. In one study, people with chronic pain reported less intense pain and decreased levels of disability and depression when they mentored others. Researchers from Duke University found that heart attack survivors who volunteered felt a greater sense of purpose and were less despondent about their health situation.
Organizations appreciate any amount of time a volunteer can offer, but studies indicate that people need to give 100 hours annually (the equivalent of about two hours every week) to reap health benefits. In 2017, Americans devoted nearly 7 billion hours to volunteering, according to a report by the Corporation for National and Community Service. The economic value of that time to organizations is estimated at $167 billion. People who give their time are also more likely to give money. About 80 percent of volunteers make monetary donations — nearly double the number of non-volunteers who make charitable contributions.
Matt Anthony knows firsthand the importance of philanthropy. In 2003, he organized a 5K run/walk to raise funds for research into glioblastoma (GBM), a brain cancer. The event was the idea of his brother Chris, who had been diagnosed with the disease three years earlier, at age 34, but died a few months before the fundraiser took place. Anthony went on to form the Head for the Cure Foundation (headforthecure.org) and was later honored as one of the CURE®
GBM Heroes® in 2017. That year, the nonprofit, which has raised more than $10 million for brain cancer research, held its 100th 5K event. “Thousands of volunteers across the country help make these achievements possible. They’re truly the lifeblood of this foundation,” Anthony says.
Volunteering can take on many forms, creating opportunities for everyone: raising funds for research, providing one-on-one support, organizing or participating in a fundraiser or lobbying on Capitol Hill. Typically, the only requirements are a positive attitude and a willingness to help. “ACS volunteers tend to be optimistic and passionate about the services they provide,” O’Neill says. In today’s digital age, there are even plenty of ways to make a difference without leaving home, such as providing financial support or campaigning for a cause via phone, text or email. Plus, organizations always need people adept at web-based tasks involving graphic design, online support groups and social media.
Susan deCordova began volunteering with Imerman Angels (imermanangels.org) soon after her 19-year-old daughter finished treatment for osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer. “I help at the office with grant writing, research and administrative tasks,” she says. “I also visit area cancer centers to talk to patients and family members about Imerman Angels.” Founded in 2003 by testicular cancer survivor Jonny Imerman, the Chicago-based, global, peer-to-peer nonprofit organization connects patients, survivors and caregivers affected by cancer with mentors who have experienced similar situations. Her mentor made such an impact that DeCordova decided to give back to the organization and help others, too.
Jackie Herigodt says she wishes she’d had someone to talk to when she lost her mother, an aunt and a grandmother to different types of cancer. “I was in my 20s when my mom was diagnosed with stage 4 small cell lung cancer. None of my friends could relate to what I was going through,” Herigodt recalls. “As a caregiver, I often felt forgotten.” Years after losing her loved ones, Herigodt heard about Imerman Angels and became a volunteer. “I didn’t want anyone else to ever feel that alone,” says Herigodt, who is now employed as the organization’s program and outreach manager. She also volunteered for 10 years with the ACS Relay for Life. “For me, giving back to these organizations is a way to honor my loved ones every single day,” she says.
READY TO VOLUNTEER?
Experience and personality come into play when determining whether an individual is mentally and physically ready to volunteer. At Cancer Hope Network (cancerhopenetwork.org
), a national nonprofit that pairs people affected by cancer with support volunteers, the standard advice is to wait one year after completing treatment or caring for a loved one before offering services. “In our 30-plus years of this work, we’ve found it’s helpful to give yourself a little time to adjust to the post-cancer ‘new normal’ before jumping into cancer-focused volunteer work,” says Sarah Miretti Cassidy, the organization’s director of marketing and patient outreach. “We work with each potential volunteer to determine what’s in their best interest.” The organization uses a questionnaire to assess an individual’s mental readiness.
This advice isn’t as clear-cut for people with metastatic or chronic cancers, who may remain in treatment indefinitely and need to use their best judgment regarding whether they’re mentally and physically able to volunteer.
For people who’ve had any stage of the disease, mental health issues are common and should be considered in decisions about volunteering, according to Herigodt. “If you are struggling with mental health issues such as anxiety, depression or post-traumatic stress disorder related to the cancer diagnosis and treatment, it’s important to address those issues before you volunteer,” she says. “Immersing yourself back into a cancer setting before you are mentally healthy may worsen your anxiety or depression by bringing back memories of the difficult journey. This isn’t healthy for the volunteer or the people you’re trying to help.”
Caregiver SUSAN DECORDOVA, photographed at the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center at Northwestern University, started volunteering in thanks for the help she’d received from her own mentor.
Of course, readiness differs among individuals. Porter was volunteering at MD Anderson just a few months after completing treatment. “I knew that I was emotionally healed enough to volunteer, so I did,” she says. “Sometimes we just have to start and see how it goes. We can’t always wait for perfect moments and circumstances before we take action.”
For those who are ready, there’s no shortage of opportunities. Hospitals, cancer centers and nonprofit organizations always need volunteers. That includes ACS CAN, which can be found at fightcancer.org. “(At Imerman Angels,) we currently have connected about 46,000 people worldwide affected by cancer,” Herigodt says. “The number of people looking for support increases every year. We always need volunteers willing to lend a hand.”
Of course, volunteers can reach out beyond the cancer community. “If you want to put cancer in your rearview mirror, you can volunteer with pet rescue or feed the homeless or tutor kids in low-income neighborhoods,” deCordova says. “Anything you do to help others will help you heal yourself.”
Another great thing about volunteering is that people can do it on their terms. “We have volunteers who give a few hours of time every couple of weeks and some who contribute 20 or more hours each month,” O’Neill says. “Volunteering doesn’t have to be a lifelong commitment. You can do it for as long as it fits your lifestyle. You can volunteer with different organizations depending on what interests you the most at a particular point in your life.”
Family, friends and colleagues often ask Porter, a full-time professor at Rice University, how she finds the time to fit in four hours of volunteer service every week. “It’s not hard when you prioritize how you want to spend your time,” she says. “I consider it a blessing to be able to help, and I never want to be too busy to receive a blessing. I believe we could all find a few hours somewhere in our week to do something important for someone else. To help others requires sacrifice. It’s the nature of the thing called giving.”