5 Qualities for Powerful Cancer Advocacy

Samantha Watson, Voices on Cancer
January 19, 2017
Samantha Watson, MBA

Voices on Cancer is a Cancer.Net Blog series where advocates share their stories and the lessons they have learned about being a cancer advocate. Samantha Watson is a 2-time young adult cancer survivor. She co-founded The Samfund in 2003 after recognizing a void in programs and services tailored specifically for young adult cancer survivors. She is an active member of the cancer community and an advocate for young adult survivors throughout the country. Sam holds a BA and an MBA from Brandeis University.

My advocacy story

When I was in high school, and even college, I never saw myself becoming an advocate for cancer survivors. I had been blissfully untouched by cancer for the first 21 years of my life, and I was busy living my life as a student, with friends, classes, and activities taking up my time and my thoughts. I was a senior at Brandeis University in 1999 and was starting to think about my future. But any hopes and dreams I had before then were dashed on Christmas Eve, when I got my (first) cancer diagnosis.

My Christmas that year was an enormous lump of coal called Ewing sarcoma. I underwent 7 rounds of chemotherapy plus 1 surgery, and 2 years later, the day after my 23rd birthday, I was diagnosed with secondary myelodysplastic syndrome, a cancer of the blood and bone marrow. I then needed more chemotherapy and, ultimately, a bone marrow transplant, which, thanks to my friend and donor Eli, I underwent in August 2001.

After my treatment was over, I started to attend workshops and support groups. In a room full of people, I felt alone. I would look around and think to myself, “where are my people? Where are the other survivors who are also new college graduates? Where is my support system?” I was often the youngest—by decades—in any room. And so the first seeds of advocacy were planted.

When I went to a young adult cancer conference, appropriately called “I’m Too Young for This,” in Boston in the spring of 2003, I had my “aha!” moment. I had found my people! I met many young adults that day who didn’t have the support that I was fortunate to have, and they were really struggling financially and in many other ways. At 25 years old, I had little in the way of professional skills, but I figured I could find a way to raise money to help other young adults pay their bills. The original plan was to create a fundraising event for an existing organization, but I couldn’t find one that was focused on a) young adults, b) the post-treatment stage, and c) financial needs. So my friends and I ended up creating our own organization to fill that void: The Samfund. The mission of The Samfund is to help young adults recover from the impact of cancer treatment.  While financial toxicity has been discussed more frequently in the medical community, The Samfund brings the young adult perspective to the conversation.

This last Christmas Eve marked 17 years since my first diagnosis, and it’s overwhelming in many ways. It’s the line in the sand between my life pre-cancer and my life post-cancer—the day when everything changed. I think back on what my goals were as a college student and where my life is now, and it feels like 2 separate lifetimes. I’m a mom of 2, my tenth wedding anniversary is approaching in May, and I have the most gratifying career I could have (never) imagined. I’m frequently told that I’m “inspiring” to others because of what I went through, but the reality is that there’s nothing inherently inspirational about getting cancer or surviving it. Neither of those things was in my control. I did what I needed to do to put 1 foot in front of the other and I had to do something positive with my experience, because otherwise I would have been mentally and emotionally overwhelmed. I also needed to pay forward all of the love and support I had been so fortunate to receive throughout the years of treatment and afterwards. The young adults I’ve met through The Samfund inspire me every day with their determination to keep moving forward.

Critical qualities for cancer advocacy

There is no prerequisite for becoming an advocate—not even a cancer diagnosis—but here are the things that I think are critical qualities: share on twitter

  1. Passion. It’s what will fuel you through the days when the problem feels too big or the solution feels too small.

  2. Strong work ethic. This is essential if you’re starting an organization from nothing and you have to work from your tiny apartment, 5 feet from your bed.

  3. Vision for change. Don’t see anyone else filling that void in services or resources you think the world needs? Follow the popular saying: “be the change you wish to see in the world.”

  4. Thick skin. You’ll be told “no” a lot. Don’t take it personally, and keep moving forward.

  5. Unwavering commitment but also an open mind. Sticking to your guns is important — so is being adaptable.