How to Cope with Cancer Through Volunteering

Terri Wingham, Voices on Cancer
December 14, 2017
Terri Wingham

Voices on Cancer is an award-winning Cancer.Net Blog series where advocates share their stories and the lessons they have learned about being a cancer advocate. Terri Wingham, a breast cancer survivor, is CEO and founder of A Fresh Chapter. Her nonprofit organization places people with cancer around the globe for volunteer work.

My advocacy story

Before cancer, I didn’t really volunteer.share on twitter Outside of a once-a-month mentoring program for high school girls interested in business careers, my job kept me too busy to consider giving back. I also didn’t see myself as a world traveler. Sure, I had set off at 18 to explore Europe for a few months before settling into college life. But once my career took off, I couldn’t get away for more than a week at a time and never thought about visiting far-flung destinations in the developing world.

I could not have imagined a reality where I would create an organization that uses volunteering as a catalyst for healing the emotional scars of cancer. Or a reality where I travel internationally multiple times a year. But then, I could not have imagined how cancer would change everything. 

Cancer had been a whisper in my subconscious since 1999 when a genetics counselor told me that I had inherited the BRCA1 gene mutation from my father. Throughout my 20s—as I sat in drafty gowns waiting for screening MRIs and mammograms—I pretended I could somehow control if or when cancer would take up residence in my tissues. I felt confident that I would discover love, start a family, and somehow outrun the disease. Then, on October 27, 2009—at the age of 30—a diagnosis of triple-negative breast cancer caught up with me. From the loss of my breasts and of my identity as a career-driven person to getting caught in a web of dark emotions, I stumbled through treatment, hoping I would somehow emerge whole again on the other side. Instead, in 2011, with my final surgery behind me, I found myself grappling with fears of recurrence, questions about a career that no longer felt like it fit, and paralyzing sadness, isolation, and loss—even while surrounded by caring people.

I didn’t see a way out. I wasn’t interested in a traditional support group where we rehashed treatment and side effects. I wanted to break out of cancer. Searching for inspiration and a way to move forward, I took a leap of faith and did something I never would have done before cancer. I signed up for a volunteer trip to South Africa. As I boarded my flight into the unknown, I felt terrified but defiant. Regardless of what happened in the future, cancer had opened a door to a new world of possibility.

During my 6 weeks volunteering at an underfunded daycare in the townships of Cape Town, I met with children who stole my heart and women who struggled with poverty, crime, HIV, and apartheid. Their suffering didn’t diminish mine, but it helped me know I wasn’t the only one struggling. I spent my days taking care of beautiful and rambunctious toddlers, and I slowly stopped feeling like a cancer patient and remembered how it felt to be strong and capable again.

My experience in Cape Town renewed my confidence and set the stage for an even bigger leap out of my comfort zone—the creation of A Fresh Chapter. Since 2011, this organization has offered more than 150 people impacted by cancer the opportunity to reimagine what’s possible in their lives while volunteering in India, Peru, Costa Rica, South Africa, and the United States.

Volunteering creates a unique opportunity for our participants to expand their stories beyond cancer. For example, one participant joined in the midst of treatment for metastatic breast cancer. While in South Africa, she used her design background to create a merchandise catalog and inventory system to help women affected by HIV generate income for their families. Another participant created a support group for other men impacted by prostate cancer and continues to advocate for men’s health in his local community. Each of our alumni has put a unique spin on giving back, both during the program and beyond. What has been consistent is that they are using their own experiences and skills to contribute in a way that is meaningful to them.

Becoming a volunteer

Here are 3 things to consider before you get started as a volunteer:

  • Find something that is meaningful to you. You can visit a volunteer website like Volunteer Match or explore skills-based opportunities through a platform like Catchafire. As you sift through the options, pay attention to what piques your curiosity. Do you want to provide 1-on-1 support to someone else going through a similar type of cancer? Learn how to advocate for health policy in Washington? Step beyond the borders of cancer entirely to volunteer with a youth empowerment program? Volunteer while seeing the world? There is no right answer—only what resonates with you right now.

  • Step out of your comfort zone. Volunteering can be a great way to step out of your comfort zone. You can do this by joining A Fresh Chapter to volunteer in a new country, but you can also do this in your own community. Why not serve a meal at a soup kitchen or swing a hammer with Habitat for Humanity?

  • Test out opportunities before you commit. Much like dating or a new job, volunteering needs to feel right. Initially, look for opportunities to connect with organizations in a bite-sized way. For example, check out an event they are hosting, volunteer for a run/walk, or even engage with them on social media and see if their message resonates with you. If it does, begin to expand your engagement. Don’t worry if it takes a few tries before you find your way.

Regardless of what you choose to do to give back, find something that lights you up. I know firsthand how volunteering can provide a fresh sense of identity and purpose while creating a ripple of good in the world.