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We are all in the cancer fight together

Heather Schumacher (left) and Kathy Goss, PhD, on Capitol Hill

Heather Schumacher is a member of the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University’s Patient & Family Advisory Board. Hear her talk about her experience at the 20th Annual Cancer Survivors’ Celebration & Walk on Sunday, June 2.

On May 16, 2012, I was sitting in a hospital room on the 15th floor of Prentice Women’s Hospital trying to convince my body to cooperate better so I could be discharged early after receiving my brother’s stem cells for my second stem cell transplant. On May 16, 2013, I was sitting in legislative offices at Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. for Association of American Cancer Institutes (AACI) Capitol Hill Day to share my cancer journey with members of the Illinois delegation. What a huge difference one year makes!

It was an honor and inspiration to be able to share my Hodgkin’s lymphoma story with politicians and lawmakers in order to encourage them to continue funding cancer research and treatment. I accompanied a cancer researcher, Kathy Goss, from the University of Chicago, and Virginia Neale, Northwestern University’s Associate Director of Government Relations, to eleven appointments to encourage the legislators to make funding for cancer  a top priority in this volatile economic time.

I was able to share my story, which includes 26 rounds of chemotherapy, 40 radiation treatments, two experimental treatments, two stem cell transplants, and many weeks in the hospital, with Congressional staff members. Their reactions ranged from sympathy to discomfort to pure shock. However, they all agreed that cancer funding continues to be essential and many of the offices confirmed it as top priority.  As grueling as the treatments were, I always appreciated the fact that all of these life-saving options were available and made possible by the dedicated researchers and pioneers in the field of cancer medicine. I stressed how essential cancer funding research was for me and my fellow cancer patients since now there are over 100 different types of cancer and many patients follow a unique cancer treatment regimen. It costs $300,000 a year to fund one year of a cancer research lab.

I am an educator and we stress differentiation in the classroom to best meet the learning needs of our students. I related that to cancer treatments; cancer patients need “medical differentiation” to find the most appropriate treatment and ideally their eventual cure. Without robust funding, cancer treatment options are not as readily available and diverse to meet patient needs. Having been in treatment for so long, I have been able to see firsthand the significant advancements in medicine.

Cancer patients thrive and heal through hope- hope that there are options for them; hope that if one treatment does not work, there is another; hope that in the near future they be cure and can cross-over to the survivor status. After I shared my story, every single one of them congratulated me on the one year anniversary of my stem cell transplant and acknowledged that I would not be sitting across from them looking and feeling so healthy if it was ten years ago.

Our final meeting was our toughest- the staff who met with us felt that cancer research was important, but that only spending money that fit within the budget was more important--and there were a myriad of pressing political issues. I looked him in the eye and asked him to consider the value of a human life, my human life, and think of cancer patients as investments. Patients can offer the best returns on legislators’ financial investments into cancer research because of the power of our futures with the right treatment. Who knows how many future doctors, teachers, police officers, musicians, researchers, and other amazing and talented people will be cured by progressive and innovative cancer research? He couldn’t agree more.

As I ran to my gate at the airport to catch a late flight home that evening, I was overwhelmed with the intense momentum of the day. I felt such gratitude for those people who had advocated for cancer research funding long before I was ever diagnosed. I could never possibly begin to count the infinite hours that doctors, researchers, and supporters have dedicated to finding appropriate treatments and potential cures for cancer. Furthermore, I confirmed my belief that I was being treated at the most innovative and comprehensive cancer center by being a patient at Northwestern’s Lurie Cancer Center.

Cancer will affect everyone’s life in some way, whether they are the patient, care giver, or friend. We are all in the cancer fight together, and I was truly blessed to have the opportunity to advocate for the bright and robust future of my fellow cancer patients.

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