Terri Wingham was 30 and single, and living for her all-consuming, high-paying job as an executive recruiter when, in 2009, she came face-to-face with cancer. The tumor in her breast was small but aggressive. It also wasn’t totally unexpected.
Ten years earlier, she had learned she carried a BRCA genetic mutation, which significantly increased her risk of breast and ovarian cancer. But what followed after she completed treatment was a surprise: feelings of deep isolation that led her to question her goals, pack up her apartment in Vancouver, British Columbia, and head off for a series of transcontinental volunteer experiences that would inspire her to establish a program that would facilitate international volunteer opportunities for cancer survivors.
“My vision is to help cancer survivors believe in the power of dreams again,” says Wingham, now 34, who recently returned from leading 12 survivors on a two-week pilot trip through India under the auspices of her fledgling organization, the Fresh Chapter Alliance Foundation.
Are You Ready?
Here’s what you should know before taking part in an international volunteering opportunity.
To take part in an international volunteer program:
- You do not need to be in remission, but you must be healthy enough to travel.
- You will probably be required to pay all or part of your travel expenses. This can range from $650 to $2,000, not including airfare. Many people raise funds to cover this expense.
- You may need to receive a series of vaccinations before you travel.
- You should be prepared to travel to a country where you may encounter unsanitary conditions, mosquitoes, lack of air conditioning, rationed water and unpaved roads.
Wingham worked with Cross-Cultural Solutions of New Rochelle, N.Y., the program that had arranged some of her own volunteer work, to match the survivors to volunteer opportunities in India. Her group also met and shared stories with others facing cancer through CanSupport, a New Delhi–based cancer program.
“I learned on my trip around the world that many people in developing countries had never met a cancer survivor,” she says. “In many of those countries, cancer is typically diagnosed late and is seen as a death sentence. My hope is that survivors who travel to these countries can raise awareness and reduce stigma … shifting people’s perceptions about the disease.”
One highlight of Wingham’s recent trip was seeing each survivor’s pride in having made it to India. “Most never imagined themselves doing anything like this,” she says. Or experiencing it with other cancer survivors. “They would say, ‘It’s like I don’t have to explain anything to these other 11 people. … They get it.’ ” These connections, which, she adds, her program intends to foster, “will help sustain them as they move forward through the highs and lows of cancer survivorship.”
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