DISCOVERING MY PURPOSE: A COMMUNITY FOR PARENTS WITH CANCER

By Dr. Meredith Hemphill Ruden

Knowing my purpose, like knowing myself, is a work-in-progress. There have been a few moments in my life that were defining – but only so because of the rest, those little moments that seemed unimportant to me at the time.

Let’s take a big moment. On a bus ride across the Turkish countryside, I received a terse sounding voicemail. Call us back, we have your results. I thought of the ugly mole on my leg and the biopsy site that wouldn’t quite heal that replaced it. And, when I finally got through between dropped calls and service interruptions, I learned that what I had hoped was an irrational fear wasn’t. I did have melanoma – an aggressive, early stage cancer. I was 25 and abroad, without a frame of reference for anything I was hearing over the phone.

For years after, I described this story just so. Simply, succinctly, as a medical scare that opened my eyes that “this could happen to you.” It led me to oncology social work, I explained. It made me aware of the need to talk to someone when you go through any life-threatening issue. It was a near miss that I was tremendously grateful for because it made me a little bit wiser, a bit more empathetic…

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Much later, the little moments that leant meaning to this big one came into focus. I remembered the moment that my dad had cried (the second time I’d ever seen him tear up) and patted me on the knee in that emptying tour bus. I remembered how my mom, who I had called from the hotel that night, had rallied. She put her own feelings to the side to comfort me and to think through next steps for my return flight and surgery, intuitively sensing what I needed most then. These little moments helped me to understand something deeper about that big, tough one.

I realized that my family didn’t fall apart, as it could have. From that moment forward, it became closer.

Fast-forward 10 years. I am a counselor of cancer patients and a parent. At home, I was managing restless sleep (mine and my kids!), childcare logistics and the struggles of parenting as responsibly and attentively as possible. At work, I was counseling people with cancer who were treated with chemotherapy, surgery or clinical trials. I counseled people who were similar to me. They were around my age, parents with busy careers; some of them even shared my diagnosis. I also started to keep track of the people who I didn’t see until months after their initial diagnosis. Often, these people were also parents or caregivers. Gradually, I realized that the stress and responsibilities of parenting were negatively impacting this group. They were delaying the start of treatment and struggling through it more than they had to. They were doing this because they had to take care of themselves and their kids.

I searched for resources for them like support groups, retreats and financial/ work assistance. There were parents support groups for a whole host of issues - surely, I thought, there must be something for parents with serious illnesses like cancer. But, I found very little. A “tip sheet,” here; a group to help children cope, there.

This struggle to find more resources is how I found my purpose. This particular challenge that I was experiencing prompted me to take action and start a foundation. The Feather Foundation was born through my personal and professional vision from my earlier experiences, founded on the belief that families can stay connected and whole through cancer with a little extra help.

Our name is inspired by the Dickinson poem about hope being “the thing with feathers that perches in the soul.”
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We help people access hope by removing barriers to care and recovery. We offer emotional support on parenting through cancer and self-care. We connect parents with cancer to one another, and to other resources available to them and their kids. We provide financial assistance with an individual grant towards the extra costs of childcare. In short, it’s a full-frontal assault on the stressors caused by being a parent with cancer.

Although I can’t know what any particular parent feels when they go through their cancer experience, I believe that I can help by creating a community that didn’t exist before. One that they can feel part of, can shape to their needs and individual voices, and that they can count on for support.

They have helped me, too. Those moments in which I spoke to these parents have joined those earlier life experiences, in my mind. They’ve helped me to learn more about my self, my life and my family – and become more purposeful, in turn.

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Does Meredith's story resonate in some way? Did your own trials and struggles lead you to find your own purpose? If exploring your own path to purpose is something that you think about, we encourage you to comment or reach out in our community where you can ask questions and seek advice from other women!

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Dr. Meredith Hemphill Ruden is a social worker that specializes in work with cancer centers and community-based cancer organizations, providing counseling support to individuals and their families and developing new programs for their support. She is also an adjunct professor, a mom, and the founder and president of The Feather Foundation. Follow along on Instagram @thefeatherfoundation.