Oncology Times

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View From the Other Side of the Stethoscope

As an internist and cancer survivor, Wendy S. Harpham, MD, FACP, offers a unique perspective on oncology practices.

Friday, January 6, 2023

The Healing Power of Fundraising

Throughout my survivorship, I've done countless unpleasant things. Chemotherapy, anyone? The puzzler is explaining why year after year I keep doing something I hate doing and don't have to do: Ask for money. This reflection shares what I've learned about the power of fundraising to help some patients. My story highlights a way clinicians may strengthen bonds with those patients.

Thirteen years after my first cancer diagnosis, an email from Leigh, a local philanthropist, invited me to help form a Dallas chapter of the Lymphoma Research Foundation (LRF). To protect my limited energy and writing time, I usually declined such invitations. That day, I hesitated then agreed to attend the inaugural meeting.

Leigh had gotten my name from someone I admired on the national stage of advocacy, making it difficult to say no. More important, my lymphoma was finally in a durable remission—4 years—after receiving various cancer therapies, including investigational treatments. A need to express my gratitude pressed uncomfortably against my chest. Supporting LRF might help.Wendy Image.jpg

At the first meeting, Leigh asked each of us to describe our connection to lymphoma and what skills we brought to the group. For the purposes of this column, it doesn't matter why I'd sooner undergo a bone marrow biopsy than ask for money. The fact that soliciting donations made my heart race and stomach feel queasy explains my politically incorrect ultimatum to the group: “Don't ask me to fundraise. I'm happy to donate my writing services and form a team for the walk. I don't fundraise."

Months later, in anticipation of the first Dallas Lymphomathon, I organized a team to take advantage of “a Mom opportunity to expose my teenagers to the world of cancer beyond our family's experience. It was a place to reinforce a few lessons about survivorship—and about life—while enjoying family fun." (Why Patients Keep Walking, Oncology Times 2015: https://bit.ly/3iCV9qp). My co-captain son borrowed from his school's mascot when naming our team: Wendy's Eagles (WE).

Unfortunately, fully embracing the teachable moment meant facing my uneasiness about fundraising. Using writing as therapy, I crafted a solicitation letter focused on “the plight of others" and “need for better answers." The official “ask" began with a vision of a future where “a cancer diagnosis will no longer elicit fear for it will no longer pose a threat." To incentivize donations, I shared my belief: “With well-funded research, that hope can become a reality."

Lucky for me, someone I'd recently befriended offered to help assemble the letters. Exchanging stories while stuffing envelopes offset the tedium. Doing something to help patients forged a forever friendship. For me, signing “With gratitude and hope" gave voice to both—over 100 times. That pressure in my chest slowly eased. My hope for survival grew stronger.

Over the next weeks, checks made out to LRF arrived in my mailbox, many with notes thanking me—thanking me!—for raising money. Co-survivors shared brief updates. Two donated to honor loved ones. The unexpected messages felt good but didn't fix my phobia.

The following year, my fundraising uneasiness escalated even higher because this time I was asking again. "My dread of asking anyone for any money prompted an idea: I could ask people—politely, no pressure!—if they'd like to buy…green ribbons 'in honor of' or white ribbons 'in memory of' their loved ones, with the promise I'd carry the flag of names throughout the course." The positive response reassured me that my asking was also giving them a gift. Donors' ribbons fluttering in the wind helped them celebrate survival, nurture hope, and heal after loss.

By the time of the fourth annual event, I was back in treatment. With the impending graduation of my co-captain son, my pitch letter announced the “final flight" of WE. Energized by the notion of a grand finale, WE raised our best total by far, making for a satisfying conclusion to my fundraising career. What a relief!

The following spring, my son called from college to ask about my plans for the Lymphomathon. “Huh? I'm not walking." He informed me, “Well, my friends are driving down with me to walk—with or without you." Maternal pride eclipsed the stomach-sinking realization of more fundraising ahead.

At the conclusion of that WE campaign and of each one since, I felt happy to be done. Months later, news of the next walk triggered my flip-flopping. Yes? No? Inevitably, something nudged me to commit. A few times, it was a donor's worry, “Did I miss your letter? I like supporting Wendy's Eagles." Often, it was the enthusiasm of pre-health students at UT Dallas planning their major service event to support WE. I confess to using the walk as a pretext for more family time with my adult children and a chance to visit with their friends who join them. Since 2016, my “Grammy vision" saw golden opportunities to model the joy of service for my littlest ones.

Could I possibly hold on to that joy without self-consciousness or embarrassment? To find out, I visited a physician-friend who personified thriving through chronic illness and seemed to effortlessly do his annual fundraising for Bike MS. I was curious: “How do you feel while asking for donations?" There was no air between my question and his response, “I hate it!" We burst into cathartic laughter.

Discomfort is a price I pay for fundraising. A day may come when soliciting donations no longer bothers me. Or I decide to devote energies elsewhere. Or infirmity decides for me.

Throughout the years of my changing circumstances and needs, fundraising has been healing in one way or another, whether by helping me accept uncertainty, avoid loneliness, and/or decrease the sense of vulnerability and lack of control. After little and big losses, it has helped me find meaning and hope.

Fundraising is not for everyone. For patients who do it, the rewards are worth the time, effort, and (for folks like me) unease. Benefits may arise from:

  • Hope. In a community, one person's “my hope" grows stronger as part of “our hope."
  • Connection. Fundraising introduces patients to co-survivors in non-medical settings. Patients' communications nurture healing relationships with donors, especially when donations include updates and encouraging words.
  • Power. Patients feel the collective power of something bigger than themselves pushing back against formidable disease by supporting its foe: research. Through fundraising, patients also feel the power of meaning in illness, of giving something valuable to donors, and of sustaining the legacies of co-survivors who died.

I suppose that fundraising rarely comes up during doctor visits. Those times that you notice patients' t-shirts or their mentions of an event, commending their participation shows caring—and carries no obligation to donate. (That's wonderful. That organization does valuable work). A brief chat may provide useful insights into what matters to your patients and where they find strength. (What's the best part for you?) My hope is that you see fundraising as a thank-you gift from patients like me, grateful for all you do for us.