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Surviving Cancer: Finding Strength and Support with FSP

Posted By Allison Van Buren, Wednesday, March 02, 2016


I am not the gushy type of person that spends time thinking about holidays. However, the past two years have been both devastating and life-changing for me, which has led me to celebrate every possible holiday with deep gratitude. Having been born and raised in Tanzania, my long-winded story is a reflection of my story-telling heritage, but I would like to share a little about how I found strength in the darkest times, and why the Faculty Success Program means so much to me.


I started my tenure-track position at a research-intensive university in 2009. At the time, I had a four- year-old son and a 1.5-year-old daughter. My father had passed away in 2007, soon after I graduated with my Ph.D., and I had been caring for my mother since she came to live with us. I commuted almost four hours round-trip, four days a week, for two years, just to get to my academic job. The long commute was taking a toll on me, so in 2011, my husband quit his job in our town so that we could move closer to the university.


We bought an ethnic grocery store in the town bordering the university – our first business! My husband ran the business, and with loans, bills, and the costs associated with a start-up, we expected no income return for the first three years. But then in 2013, my husband’s small business burned to the ground in a multi-business fire. We lost everything after 18 months of heavy investment. Should I tell you how we learned that our business was burning? Sigh. Imagine watching the 11 o’clock news and seeing an image of your store on fire flash in front of you. Even writing that sentence evokes a sense of trauma. We threw our coats on and rushed to the site. My husband broke down, saying “my store, my store...” amidst hugs from the other business owners.


I wish I could tell you that the fire concluded our story of adverse life experiences, but that was not to be the case. I still had to teach, so I took five days off, returning to work in active trauma. Our kids were also distraught. Our son, now in 3rd grade, told his dad that he would return all his allowance money to help out, and our daughter made “meals” for her father out of flour, sprinkles, oil, food color, and other delicious commodities. We watched the other business owners sink into depression and trauma along with us. Then we pulled ourselves together and began advocating for our small business communityWe garnered support for our children, and we began calls to our local politicians.


Now imagine me on the tenure-track and still teaching through all of this. I asked for a course release for the next semester. Denied. I asked for support from my university and department. Minimal. I reached out widely to the academic community and initially got strong words of support. Colleagues and administrators sympathized with my situation, but what could they do? And then, as usually happens, our story was replaced by other stories, and it was business as usual at the university.


Despite everything I was going through, I completed the Fall 2013 and Spring 2014 semesters with my students excelling at unprecedented rates both in class and in their research. Then in Fall 2014, my mentee, who had become my dearest friend, moved on as students are supposed to do. I was also beginning the new academic year without my research partner who had left for a new academic position. She had become one of my closest colleagues, and I truly thought of her as my sister from a different mother. Argh! Talk about an enormous vacuum in my life. I was heart-broken –  beyond devastated – and I didn’t think I would ever make it through that semester. I was lucky to have another close colleague and FSP buddy at my institution. It was being part of the FSP community that got me through many of these difficult moments.


It was during August of the Fall 2014 semester that I began getting sick – a chronic cold followed by symptoms of pneumonia in September and October. I tried to be strong, but I was in active trauma and physically fading. The first anniversary of our store fire loomed threateningly, invoking post-traumatic stress in our family. While their school support remained strong, our son was terrified of the fire prevention demonstration at school, and our daughter was afraid to sleep alone. We were always scared upon returning home from short trips to town. Would we return to a burnt-down house?


And then, damn it, I was diagnosed with breast cancer in November 2014! Now, let me tell you that we are used to adversity - it’s part of the fabric of our lives. So one more hit would typically be one more hit, except this time it was a hurricane followed quickly by a tsunami. Exhausting, right? Our family was hit so hard that saying it hurt would not do our experience justice. We were leveled – financially tanking and emotionally drained. I felt like I was clinging to the edge of a cliff by my fingernails.


Throughout all of this, I was supposed to submit my tenure dossier for review during that fall semester. I was fortunate that the university granted me an extension, but I knew that I needed support. I reached out to Kerry Ann in December 2014. I asked her if she could help me connect to someone who understood academia, came from this wonderful Faculty Success Program (FSP) community, and who had survived breast cancer. Kerry Ann sent the message out into the universe of FSP coaches and then let me know that there was someone I could talk to.


It’s been a year since I have been talking to and texting Ethel Nicdao! Ethel listened actively, provided strong support, and heard my anxieties. (Tears are about to spill as I write this. Go away, tear drops!) Ethel is spectacular! (That makes me grin.) She told me that I could call her anytime, day or night. When I underwent two major surgeries and began chemo, Ethel texted words of support, validated my anxiety, and maintained a presence even though I had never met her and she lived on the other side of the country.


When my hair began falling out as a result of chemotherapy, I reached out to Ethel once again. That was Mother’s Day 2015. I remember that day clearly as I needed to shave my hair off, but I could not do it. The next week, full of anxiety, I told Ethel that I was scared to shave off my hair, but it was falling out in clumps. To be honest, it felt like I had Donald Trump’s hair. You know, the kind that just sits loosely anchored to one’s skull? I had never really paid attention to my appearance, but losing my hair was more about the effects of cancer than aesthetic concerns. Ethel texted me back; she was going to shave her hair in solidarity. I anxiously texted her not to do it – “NO!!!!!!  Don’t do that for me!!!!” – but she did not check her messages.


My kids and my best friend’s daughter shaved off my hair that day. I decided that heck, if I had to shave it off, I would at least do it for a good cause. So, I had my best friend, Nora, videotape the whole thing. In fact, my early relationship and re-acquaintance with Nora deserves a whole chapter in my future memoir.


I decided to raise money for four charities – Calcutta Kids, Inc., run by my friends and superstars, Noah Levinson and Evangeline Ambat; Cancer Connection, where I received amazing support and love; Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association, my former workplace, my community research partner, and where I first met Nora; and Amani Kids House, where my mentee and beloved friend interned. I was able to smile while my hair dropped to the ground. My husband tidied up after the kids’ creative haircut. I don’t know how he felt that day; I am afraid to ask him. (Those tears are starting up again.)


Ethel had her own process that morning. She had gone to church and came out knowing what she would do to support me; she went to her brother’s home and had him shave her hair in solidarity. When she sent me the video and photos, I was shocked. “No!!! Ethel, No!!! I don’t know you. You did not have to do that for me. OMG!” It was days before graduation, and there was Ethel, a faculty member at her own institution, going bald in robes! But Ethel is a tough cookie; she told me that she had no regrets. She knew what she had to do, and she was glad to show me what support looked like. I bow down to all the gods, across all religions, in deep gratitude.


If that isn’t a good enough reason for my selection of Ethel as an eternal source of strength and support, then let me convince you with another story of her generosity. It was early last summer in Massachusetts. I was coming to the end of chemotherapy when Ethel told me that she was coming to visit me. Remember that we have never met; it was FSP, as well as fate, that had brought us together! This visit from Ethel was not your typical visit. This woman and her wonderful, gracious partner, flew out to Pennsylvania to visit a friend with terminal cancer and then drove a zillion miles through horrendous New York traffic up to Connecticut to visit another friend. Bickering through traffic, shocked by the distances they were driving, and stuck in the car for hours for a very short trip, I can only imagine the looks they gave each other. Did I mention that before they had left California, they had spent 10 days driving with their niece? Yes, you understand the situation clearly now.


Ethel and I met halfway. I was experiencing high anxiety and panic attacks that made it difficult for me to walk around the block alone, let alone leave home to drive somewhere on my own. But I drove to see Ethel. You need to know that even with all the driving she had done, she still wanted to come all the way up to see me at my home, but I needed to be brave so I used this opportunity to challenge myself to reach out. I like meeting my friends halfway.


We met. Oh, I could have just climbed onto her lap and snuggled. Are we allowed to say that about our FSP friends? I was so happy; our friendship had marked a turning point in my life for sure. That someone would value me enough to come all the way from California to see me! I cannot even begin to express my amazement. And without any fanfare, I began to accept my own value as a friend.


Ethel and I have stayed in touch and I am going to see her this year. When I told her I’m headed to San Diego for a conference, she said, “You know that Sacramento is a long way away from San Diego?” Oh whatever! Secretly, I am dying to see her again.


I write this on the first anniversary of my bilateral mastectomy, the early stages of my journey as a breast cancer patient and survivor. I am still on the tenure-track, having just returned to full-time work after a year of medical leave. My students continued to win top awards, get jobs, and move onto graduate school. My husband has started a new business. Our kids are well-adjusted and exceptionally loving, and my mother tends to us and grows a prolific, organic vegetable garden. Ethel is a household name.


And I am in recovery.


Adversity? Yes, plenty of it. And yet while biting back and fighting against it, I was awarded the Distinguished Teaching Award by my institution in May 2015; was nominated for a national award for community-engaged scholars by the faculty senate; and received the inaugural Community Research Innovate Scholar Program (CRISP) Award from the Center for Clinical and Translational Research at UMass Medical School. Woot! Woot!


Finally, you should know that while this is a story about my trajectory as a tenure-track faculty, my support system, and my family, it is also a story about the Faculty Success Program. My closest colleague and friend in my department is an FSP alumni, as are my therapist and my key mentors. When I head to California for the conference this spring, I will travel with Lindiwe Sibeko and visit Ethel – my FSP sisters –  and I will meet with Michelle Jacobs, my role model, friend, and former FSP small group partner who has also supported me through all of these ordeals.


We don’t need to travel difficult journeys alone, not when we have a community to support us. As for me? Well, I am finding my way. Do I still want to be a professor? I think I already won that battle as a woman, a faculty of color, an immigrant, the first generation to attend college in my family, and as a pre-tenured faculty member. Thought it all, I’m still that fierce girl that grew up in Tanzania.


Lorraine Cordeiro, Ph.D., M.P.H.

Assistant Professor

University of Massachusetts Amherst

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