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Giving back

June 2, 2013
By SHAUNNA DUNDER HERSHBERGER - Lifestyles Editor ( , Times Leader

As I drove back to work on a hot August afternoon in 2008, my mind was on anything but the highway. I'd just had a CT scan at the hospital to further examine a suspicious area that had appeared on my recent PET scan. At this point, I was only six months out from my stem cell transplant, and the only thought bouncing through my head was, "Not again."

A few minutes later, and less than hour after my scan, my oncologist's office called me to say it was a false alarm. Everything was fine. There was no cancer.

I felt relieved. But at the same time, I also felt depressed. I stared at my computer screen - I was halfway through designing a furniture sale ad - and wished I was serving a higher purpose than designing someone's junk mail. In that moment, I made a vow to find some way to give back to my fellow cancer warriors and survivors. I was given another chance, for whatever reason, and I felt that if I could help some people make it through treatment and life after cancer, then I was making a difference.

Three months later, I had my own setback when my cancer recurred. I faced it once again a few months later, and by summer of 2009, I finished chemo and looked ahead to living without having to deal with treatment schedules, doctor's appointments and multiple tests.

The desire was still inside of me to find a way to help others. But I just didn't know how to do that. I attended monthly family support group meetings of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society and shared my experiences as best I could while also listening to and learning from the others in attendance. At some point, when people began asking questions about symptoms and recovery, I realized I could answer some of their questions. I could help these people.

It wasn't much longer after that when I started working as the Lifestyles Editor at The Times Leader. I decided to share my story for my first column, and I really was not prepared for the feedback I received. People sent letters, emails and even called me, sometimes just to ask me for the name of my oncologist. I discovered a whole world of people out there who had been through similar situations. I just wanted to convey that there is always hope, no matter how dark things seem to get. Knowing that my words seemed to help people fed into my desire to give back to others.

Things blossomed from there. I was asked to speak at a breast cancer support group meeting, and I continued to share my experience in my columns when I had the opportunity. Whatever I could do or say just to help one person, that made everything I went through worth it.

Last fall, I had the opportunity to work with the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, an organization with whom I was well acquainted. During my initial course of chemo, I took advantage of the LLS's patient financial aid program. It helped with co-pays and other expenses, and I was extremely grateful for the program. When a position to coordinate the annual Light the Night Walk became available, I jumped at the chance. This felt like the opportunity I'd been waiting for - a way to give back to the masses by assisting an organization I cared about.

Planning a walk for 600 people is no easy task, and I was responsible for securing sponsors, managing logistics, and recruiting teams. As the walk approached in mid-April, I'm pretty sure I didn't see much of my husband for the two months prior to the walk. I worked in the morning and early afternoon at the T-L and then I worked for several hours in the evening on planning the walk. It was a lot of work, but I wouldn't trade any of it for the wonderful relationships I forged with many of the participants, team captains and committee members. This was what I'd been waiting for. This was my niche - cancer advocacy. I loved it.

But all the hard work came at a price. Personally, I was extremely burnt out. I had little time for myself, and as a result, my health started to suffer - I dealt with sleeping and eating issues, as well as fatigue. Plus, if you ask my husband, I think I was a bit cranky as well.

My mom had a long talk with me after the walk. She made me realize that I could still help others without taking on so much. I worked so hard to get myself healthy and back into remission, but now I was working too hard to continue caring for myself. That might sound a bit selfish, but I know I can't help people if I'm not well.

Mom also made me realize that I can still be a big part of the walk without being in charge of the planning. I can be a team captain again, a committee member and find other ways to volunteer. I don't mind running with the pack, I just don't want to be the lead dog this time.

I informed my co-workers in the Pittsburgh office that once I finished wrapping up everything for the walk this year, I would resign my position as campaign coordinator. That was not easy to do. As much as I loved my opportunity with the LLS, I knew I had to take care of myself too. I can still advocate in other ways. For example, in addition to continuing with the LLS in a different capacity, I also joined several Facebook groups for Hodgkin's lymphoma survivors and those going through treatment to provide as much help and information as I could to others. It's amazing how you can form a wonderful relationship with someone you don't even know except as a name on a computer screen - but having something like surviving cancer in common is really strong glue for forming a bond.

Several warriors I met along the way have long since lost their battles, and for some reason, I am still here, still fighting. It's not easy to deal with that sometimes, as survivor's guilt is common. But at the same time, it just reinforces for me why I'm trying to do what I can. Instead of asking myself, "Why was I spared?", it's much better to ask, "What can I do to help?" Whether or not my cancer returns, I will always be a fighter.



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