Twenty months ago, the first year of the global pandemic was in full swing and Melanie, a healthy 27-year old with no family history of cancer, was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Now, she’s celebrating cancerversary by raising money to support others facing a cancer fight. (Donate in support HERE. Live in New Jersey? Melanie is a “second-generation insurance agent,” and will $10 to CHN for each individual who requests a quote during the month of February. Learn more or request a quote at melanieciappi.com.)
Melanie’s journey began June 2020 when neck pain and unexpected exhaustion turned into “a billion” doctors, sonograms, x-rays, blood tests and “a biopsy, just in case.” An early bright spot was Merlo, the comfort puppy who came into her life the week she was diagnosed. Supported by friends and family, pandemic guidelines meant she faced the majority of her diagnosis and treatment alone, with loved ones providing rides, but sitting in their cars, unable to join her.
Her last treatment was February 5, 2021. This February, she is marking her cancerversary by looking back at “the roughest moments of my life” and celebrating how much things have changed. “I have accomplished so much this year. I’m so grateful for my health. I’m so grateful for the things I’ve been able to do in the past year. It’s important to celebrate the anniversaries – because no one knows what you’ve gone through unless they’ve gone through it themselves.”
Melanie is a longtime volunteer for several mental health organizations and when treatment was complete, jumped at the chance to provide peer support as a Cancer Hope Network volunteer. “I know that the peer to peer aspect is very important. I feel that there’s a huge stigma around mental health – seeking therapy, a counselor or group meetings isn’t spoken about enough. It’s getting there; there’s been a big change since I started volunteering ten years ago, but I want to be sure I’m practicing what I tell others. If I think others need help, I do too.”
“I wish I’d been paired with someone who would have told me from day one what to expect. The hair loss, how real the side effects the doctor is reading off the sheet will be.” Melanie brings an optimistic realism to the matches she serves. “Cancer Hope Network is so crucial. Match visits are bittersweet. It’s nice to help someone else and to be able to talk to someone who’s about to go through it. I’m here to answer questions. It’s also heartbreaking to know what they’re about to go through. I feel like the point of these matches is to be honest. I let people know that it’s going to be ok, but it’s going to be challenging. It’s going to be a journey and there are ways to get through it.”
She encourages the patients and caregivers she’s matched with to ask for help. “There’s no ‘I’ve got it’ in cancer. It’s ok to ask for help and resources. Don’t feel like you’re being a burden. Your family, your friends, your doctors, nurses and support system – they all want to help. It’s a strength in itself that you’re asking for help.” Faced with the exhaustion and side effects of cancer and chemo, she wasn’t able to do much and felt the loss of control acutely. But she reclaimed measure of her control by asking for help.
People brought her to treatments and dropped off food (“Very helpful, because there was no way I was cooking!”) and family took shifts staying at her house a week at a time after her chemo (“There was someone to help with the day to day of breakfast and making sure I wasn’t a fall case.”). Others, kept away by the pandemic, provided support and help remotely. “They would text or call to ask how I was doing. The first two months of treatment, everyone was asking how I was doing and it felt ok to talk about it because it was so new. Five months in, I worried that people were tired of me talking about my symptoms. The people who still cared enough to check in were so meaningful. I know they worried about being a burden, but it kept me going.”
In an experience filled with difficult moments – four hours in an infusion chair, administering immunity boosting injections, mouth sores, bone aches and more – she was particularly fond of folks who checked in to share what was happening unrelated to cancer. “I loved hearing about other people’s lives. Tell me what’s going on with you! It took me out of my own life for a moment.”
She sees her work as a Support Volunteer providing one on one peer support, is the chance to help people not feel like they’re alone. “I can help them feel validated. Cancer patients are wondering if their experience is normal. Caregivers think they’re going crazy because the person they’re trying to support thinks they’re over reacting.”
Her best advice – “Try to survive today. Don’t think about tomorrow, don’t think about yesterday. Focus on how you will get through this moment, this symptom, this day. Whatever the hardship, try to celebrate the little wins. Enjoy the good days. Because you have both – take advantage of them. And Listen to what YOU want to do and what is best for yourself. People will want to help, but may not know what’s best for you. Be true to yourself.”
“My work as a volunteer – and now hosting this fundraiser – helps people not feel isolated or lonely. I’m proud to be able to raise money so Cancer Hope Network has the resources to continue to advocate for people facing cancer and matching them with a volunteer who understands.”
To be matched with a volunteer, call 877.467.3638 (877-HOPENET) or click HERE.