Balancing Volunteerism and Self-Care During Cancer Survivorship


After recovering from a bone marrow transplant to tackle a recurrence of acute myeloid leukemia, I started to volunteer.

cartoon drawing of cancer survivor and blogger, Mary Sansone

I won a volunteer award at Moffitt Cancer Center. I spent a night at the hospital during a category 4 hurricane to watch over the children of the physicians and medical staff members who were taking shelter during the storm. I slept on an exam table. (There were actual patients in the beds, and any other open beds were rightfully reserved for the staff.) I must have been exhausted since I fell asleep on this miniature padded piece of metal. I heightened the table to line up with the sink-desk to elongate my sleeping “cot.” Confession: I brought my electric blanket.

Later, I got my $25 gift card to the Moffitt Cancer Center gift shop as a thank you from the center. I waited in the lobby for a patient, viewable by many identifiers, not the least of which is a hospital wristband. I approached two separate women patients in the lobby and asked them if I could get them anything from the gift shop. They thanked me but declined.

I noticed an older man heading toward the store, and I asked him, “Are you a patient?” He did a small scowl, thinking I was an annoying survey-taker or a pushy salesperson for gum and teddy bears. This made me chuckle. I explained that I had a gift card, and I was looking for a patient who might need something from the gift shop.

He lit up and pointed to a Moffitt branded backpack. It was a little more than my gift card, but I was so elated to help!

Then the two ladies I spoke to earlier came into the shop and shared that they changed their mind; they wanted some snacks and drinks after all. The register counter started piling up.

I absolutely loved it. It was well worth pulling out the credit card to pay the difference. The patients did not know how much was on my gift card.

The gentleman shared about how he had to travel 65 miles each way every day for 15 days to get radiation, and proudly presented his beautifully reconstructed nose after an earlier melanoma. The women started engaging with the man and everyone was having a good time.

Even though I would do this again in a heartbeat, the experience could also be a metaphor for balancing volunteerism and self-care. Some may take on too much and may have to dig into energy or even financial reserves. We need to make sure we balance our lives.

I work full time. I am a member of the Moffitt Cancer Center Patient and Family Advisory Council, an Imerman Angel, an end-of-life companion volunteer, a Tampa Bay Women’s Club member, and a CURE® blogger. I live alone without children, so I can make some time for these activities, although not as much as I would like. I have met volunteers that juggle more than me and I am inspired by their generosity. Still, I sometimes opt out of volunteer activities to enjoy some me-time.

Me-time may sound foofy. (Overriding spellcheck.) But when I relax with aromatherapy and gentle music after a hot shower, I feel incredible. Saying no to an invitation is often a Miss Manners topic of conversation, but as a cancer survivor that works and volunteers, I dismiss guilt in turning down a few invites (in most circumstances). I love to eat good food and enjoy guilty TV pleasures like Project Runway. (I’m a sucker for seeing design talent. I may have gotten appreciation for design from watching the HGTV channel shown on nearly every waiting room TV at Moffitt Cancer Center.)

My body likes the balanced me. I just came back from a cancer checkup and learned that my blood work is “fabulous.”

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