“Sometimes when you’re in a dark place you think you’ve been buried – but you’ve actually been planted” -Christine Caine
Standing at the base of the Art Museum on a warm and rainy Saturday afternoon, I could not help but feel inspired while watching socially distanced patrons, repeatedly ascend and descend the iconic stairs with extreme focus and determination. I quickly became entranced by the soles of their shoes in endless motion, imagining the journeys traveled by the owners of each pair. A moment later, I spotted a single pair of shoes walking toward me in syncopation, stopping for a toe to toe introduction. “Hi, I’m Kristen” she said with smiling eyes and a purell prepared handshake. Kristen graciously invited me to walk alongside her while she shared with me what the journey has been like to walk in her shoes.
Currently a seventeen year survivor of advanced Ovarian Cancer, Kristen Varley recalls being diagnosed at the age of thirty-eight as a terrifying experience. “I was asymptomatic at the time of my diagnosis” she stated. Unfortunately, ovarian cancer remains without a standard testing practice to assist with early detection both then and now. As she thinks back to the time of her diagnosis Kristen states: "I remember trying wrap my head around the idea that all of a sudden I was now battling something that had invaded me, something intangible that I could not control however during the time of my diagnosis, my family was able to be present to support me, and I had many friends to surround me... the weight of that support was immeasurably important." Shifting her focus to the present, Kristen shared that she often thinks about the added challenges that accompany each person navigating a cancer diagnosis in the age of Covid-19. "No one could have predicted the circumstances the world would be faced with during the current Pandemic, but cancer patients especially, face even bigger challenges as they navigate their cancer journey with the added omission of family support in real time," says Kristen. The absence of allowable support from loved ones is being felt by cancer patients in many clinical settings, including but not limited to centers delivering chemotherapy infusions, radiation, hospital-based procedures and routine doctor visits. To increase the safety of oncology patients these necessary but often isolating precautions have been mandated due to the vulnerability of this population.
With her personal goals aligning strongly with the mission and vision of Legacy of Hope, Kristen is elated to be a sponsored athlete this year at the PHL24 hour stair climb event. She is committed to climbing the Art Museum stairs for 24 hours to raise much needed funds for the provision of emergency support to Philadelphia Cancer patients. Feeling fortunate to have had the consistent support of her family and friends at an arm’s length throughout her journey, Kristen empathetically acknowledges the weight of this absence for current cancer patients who may feel as though they are “battling their cancer alone”.
She stated: “Participating in the 24-hour stair climb allows me to remain active in the fight. I want to be here to fight for these individuals that are truly fighting for their lives today.” The ability to provide emergency support to Philadelphia cancer patients in need often re-illuminates hope, reduces anxieties and reignites the determination to carry on one step at a time.
Now having gained some insight into the depth of Kristen’s personal journey, I delicately asked if she had ever given thought to how she would want her own legacy to be defined. After a moment of deep thought and deep breaths she began her response. “I have actually thought a lot about this. I had a twelve year old daughter when I was diagnosed at thirty eight and the medical team informed me I had a 25% chance to live another five years. So I thought about the possibility of not seeing my daughter graduate from high school, or drive a car, and all the other milestones that I may not live to see. I continued to reflect on my life at that time and think to myself well, what do I want people to remember me for and I clearly remember thinking NOT CANCER! I did not want anyone to remember my journey with ovarian cancer as being the summation of my life. I did not want cancer to be my label. However, being someone capable of helping other people with a cancer diagnosis feel supported, empowered and infused with hope…now that is just so meaningful to me.”
Kristen goes on to say, “receiving my cancer diagnosis was a very surreal moment for me, I had always been a very private person prior this experience. My cancer journey has challenged me in ways I never would have imagined. I believe I was chosen for this disease because I now harbor a drive within me not only to serve as a public advocate, but also to help support other people with cancer from the time of diagnosis through survivorship as well. Even if I am only able to make a difference in one person’s life it will have all been worth it.”
Legacy of Hope really does amazing work to help lessen the burden for cancer patients says Kristen. Patients who may not know how they will continue to put food on the table or keep the lights on because they are forced to choose between managing medical bills and the expense of everyday living. Kristen wants Philadelphia cancer patients to know that she will be thinking of them with every step she takes during the PHL24 event. Her goal for the steps is to “stay in the fight and provide hope” to patients in need of such critical support. She encourages cancer patients to focus on the importance of mental health & well being equally as much as physical health throughout this process, and above all be kind to yourself. We are all human she says, we will all have days when we fall down…in those moments remember, tomorrow is a new day to start a new climb one step at a time.
Kristen remains a visible advocate for people experiencing a cancer diagnosis, ignited by her personal survivorship and an infinite internal passion to build a legacy inclusive of being a conduit of hope for every cancer patient she meets. As our walk to remember approached the final step that day, I realized what we can all learn from Kristen is “Courage isn’t having the strength to go on, its going on when you don’t have the strength." -Napoleon Bonaparte
Please consider supporting Kristen's efforts during the PHL24 event by clicking on the link here.