“Oh, let’s go back to the start.” – Coldplay, “The Scientist”
I was 17 years old the first time I stepped foot in Washington, DC. I had barely left the state of Louisiana before then; it was, after all, the first time I had ever left the South. Bright-eyed, with the world set before me, the city’s energy seeped through my veins. Al Neuharth, of USA Today fame, had created a scholarship program for high school seniors aspiring to become bonafide journalists. The catch was you also had to be fiercely committed to Al’s ideals, which explained the name of the program, Free Spirit.
His foundation selected a boy and girl from each state in the union and the District to receive a college scholarship and spend a week in the nation’s capital hearing from some true journalism heavy-hitters, like Betty Baye and the late and great Tim Russert. As you’ve surely pieced together by now, I had been selected as the female winner from Louisiana. My journalism teacher forced me to apply when I was having anxiety about my post-graduation prospects. My #1 goal was to get out of Baton Rouge, and I was determined to do whatever it took to get me there. I was a girl from the suburbs of the Deep South with aspirations of becoming the next Molly Ivins. I lived and breathed politics and journalism, and desperately wanted my words to be read beyond the front page of our high school newspaper.
That first trip to DC completely transformed my life. It was exhilarating to hear first-hand from these incredible forces in journalism and to visit all these amazing historical sites. It felt gratifying to receive recognition for my talent, to get a confidence boost that I could maybe turn this into a career after all. Most importantly, to be surrounded by and form lifelong connections with other people who thought like me, who had the same aspirations as me, and who challenged me to become a better version of myself and to keep reaching for my goals was an unbelievable gift.
Three years later, I made another trip to DC. I had been accepted to a summer program at The George Washington University, and I wanted to figure out if my heart was still in journalism or if I should continue pursuing public relations. This longer stay in DC was still intricately connected to the first one – I had refused to consider any of the internship opportunities GWU tried offering me other than the one I had my eye on from the start: C-SPAN. Perhaps a slightly unusual choice of internships at first glance, but Brian Lamb had been the honoree at the Free Spirit Conference the year I attended. His commitment to public access to our government inspired the political junkie in me. I knew I had to work for him, even if it was just as an intern. I had absolutely no training in broadcast journalism when they placed me on the production team in programming operations. I was terrified and almost walked away, but decided I couldn’t pass up the chance to work at C-SPAN.
Thank goodness my determination overruled my fears once again. I soaked up every piece of knowledge I could and learned skills that were critical to my career growth. My heart was – and always will be – in journalism, but graduating in the middle of the Great Recession lent itself more to feeding my love of marketing and public relations.
Now, at 32, I’m headed back to DC next week for a third time in my life.
The last two trips indelibly changed my life.
This trip may well save it.
Congress funds millions of dollars’ worth of cancer research through the Department of Defense each year. It initially impacts veterans, active service members, and their families through the VA, but all the research has wide implications for the public in general for obvious reasons. Three years ago, Congress decided to designate specific funding for kidney cancer research, a huge win for an often-overlooked disease. Researchers from across the US apply for funding each year, and the DoD formulates panels to review the applications and vote on which applications show the most promise and should be recommended for funding. The panels are comprised of scientists who are elite in their respective fields and a handful of consumers who are asked to give a patient’s perspective on the proposed research.
Enter your girl.
Three years ago, the DoD honored me by selecting me to serve on an online review panel, but this year, I have been asked to serve on an in-person panel.
As someone who received a liberal arts education, I feel incredibly unworthy, but my amateur scientific knowledge has been hard earned through my experience as a patient and an advocate. I’ve immersed myself in learning about tyrosine kinase inhibitors, immunotherapy and tumor vascularization from the beginning of my cancer journey because I wanted to understand what was happening to me and why. I’m certainly not a medical professional or a researcher, but I do understand what the implications of a clinical trial can mean for a patient and what risks a patient is willing to take for the chance at a cure.
I know, because I am that patient.
I know, because I could well be reviewing a proposal that may save my life one day.
So back to DC I go, a city which almost 15 years ago sparked my dreams of changing the world through my words and my work. After all, the Free Spirit motto is Dream, Dare, Do.
I don’t think for one moment that my reviews of these proposals are tantamount to changing the world. I’m not a scientist, a researcher or a doctor. But in a very small way, I’m trying my best to be one piece in the puzzle, one thread in the tapestry of cancer research.
One day, I may benefit from this research. It’s too late for my mom, and it’s too late for my friend, Steve Brown, who was part of our Free Spirit class and taught me more about living fiercely and fearlessly with cancer than I had any sense to understand back then. Steve came to us from Vermont less than a year removed from his Ewing’s sarcoma diagnosis. We stayed in touch after the conference, and his piercing calm and incredibly mature handle on life spoke to me. Neither of us could have known it then, but Steve was preparing me for my own cancer diagnosis five years after he passed away. If Steve had doubts or fears about the afterlife, he didn’t share them. He knew his time on Earth was limited, and yet he kept relentlessly pursuing each day as if he were assured another would follow.
I have to say, I am no Steve Brown. I certainly have not been as patient or poised as he was, and that PhD in physics he was working on when he passed means I am quite positive he would have been much better equipped to evaluate these proposals than I. But, I have nonetheless carried Steve and his examples of how to fight this disease with the dignity he exuded in my heart. I have spent a lot of time over these last few years thinking about what Steve would say or what he would encourage me to do.
Since I don’t have the benefit of one more email exchange or phone call with Steve, I fall back on the words we lived by back then, and had no idea of the depth of what we were saying at the time – Dream. Dare. Do.
Well, I’m doing, Steve. And I’m doing this for you.