The American Cancer Society hosts its first Campaign Against Cancer gala to raise funds for wellness programs across the District.
By: Catherine Trifiletti
“You have cancer” are three words approximately 1.7 million Americans will hear this year. The initial diagnosis can leave people feeling vulnerable, confused and numb. That’s where the American Cancer Society (ACS) steps in.
“Your mind starts reeling, so you don’t start listening after [the diagnosis]. We want to be the resource for you after you hear it,” said Shari Henning, Executive Vice President and South Atlantic Division Operating Officer for ACS.
Along with a myriad of other resources, the American Cancer Society offers patients access to an all-encompassing support hotline. Whether someone has a technical question about their treatment options or simply just needs emotional support, the hotline is staffed with medical experts and volunteers 24/7.
Henning joined the fight eighteen years ago when her best friend and brother-in-law were both diagnosed with cancer six weeks apart. She felt a natural inclination to get involved and became a volunteer with ACS as a way to connect with her loved ones and their suffering. Inspired by survivors, Henning turned her service into a career and now, as a leader of the organization, says that the job has never felt like work.
Michael Marquardt, ACS’ incoming chairman of the South Atlantic division, felt a similar draw to be proactive after losing his wife to kidney cancer fifteen years ago. Living in Detroit at the time, he remembers the logistical challenge of getting her to treatments an hour away at the University of Michigan Medical Center. He wishes he had known about the “Hope Lodges” that ACS offers to patients and families who live far from healthcare facilities.
Having been involved with several branches of the organization, Marquardt is familiar with how far the efforts of ACS reach, but finds it impossible to cite the number one most important initiative being spearheaded by ACS today.
“The research part and the advocacy part, to me, are like two legs of a three legged stool and the patient support is the third leg,” said Marquardt, “I would say if you took one of those away it would make a massive difference.”
If Marquardt’s stool had an extra leg, it would be ACS’ community involvement that initiates prevention plans to attack risk factors at their core. Locally, ACS is working to address a rising number of cancer diagnoses in the District, which has one of the highest cancer mortality rates in the nation. By the end of 2015, there will have been 2,800 new cancer cases diagnosed with an estimated 990 deaths reported in D.C.
These bleak numbers were the driving force behind the American Cancer Society’s inaugural Campaign Against Cancer gala that took place on November 4th at the Ronald Reagan Building. Henning, Marquardt and their staff teamed up with local partners to get to the root of the issues at play.
“We know that two thirds of cancer can be prevented with a couple of things,” Henning said. “If we can get rid of tobacco and if we can get people to live a healthier lifestyle meaning control what they eat and be more active.”
ACS has defined the main problem areas as Ward 5, Ward 7 and Ward 8. High poverty means higher risk factors. Henning calls these wards “food deserts” because fast food joints line main streets and access to grocery stores is limited. The ACS team is hopeful that with the right amount of funding and community outreach, they can help deflate the jarring statistics.
On November 4th, supporters and friends of the Society gathered to raise money for a shared goal — make D.C. a healthier place for children. Marita Gumbs, a personal trainer and coach for Mayor Muriel Bowser’s FitDC initiative, spoke fervently about the need to protect the District’s youth through education and wellness programs.
“We can talk until we’re blue in the face about early detection, but what about preventing cancer and other diseases all together?” she challenged. “As a community we must take a hands on approach to ensure healthy lifestyles.”