August 29, 2008

Former cancer patient uses her experience to help others

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Caroline Hale has put her experience as a patient to good use. (photo by Neil Brake)

Former cancer patient uses her experience to help others

Caroline Hale is a smart, beautiful, 21-year-old college senior.

But she'll never forget what it felt like to be just 13, and told that she had cancer. To have 13 types of chemotherapy, and 56 blood transfusions. No school, no sports, no visits with friends. No hair.

Healthy now yet forever changed, Hale has put her life-threatening experience to good use.

She lobbied Tennessee's congressional delegation to pass the Conquer Childhood Cancer Act, which will provide $150 million for childhood cancer research. And as an intern for the Monroe Carell Jr. Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt, she's built a page designed for young cancer patients on the Facebook social web site.

“I will forever be a part of the cancer community, and as long as there are people suffering from the disease, I feel that I need to use my voice to give back,” Hale said.

When CureSearch National Childhood Cancer Foundation called just two weeks before its “Reach the Day” lobbying effort in June, Hale didn't think twice.

On her computer, she quickly created a heartfelt video. Photos from her two-year treatment for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma are separated by thoughts such as “sometimes I couldn't walk, or swallow, or stop crying, or stop bleeding.” Set to the Rascal Flatts song “Skin,” about a young girl with cancer, the video captures both knife-edged fears and fragile hopes.

In Washington, D.C., Hale played her video for lawmakers.

“We didn't have the tactics that formal lobbyists have, but we honestly came from our hearts and told them our stories,” she said.

The bill passed unanimously, and was signed into law in July.

Hale also poured her heart into the Facebook page, a place for both communication and connection. Patients can upload photos, chat, read about cancer and connect to sites like the LiveStrong blog.

“We hope it will become a place where both newly diagnosed patients and survivors will feel comfortable,” Hale said. “Patients who visit the site can see survivors there who are their age. It gives them so much hope.”

It's a perfect place to reach teens and young adults who have cancer, said Andy Collier, M.D., assistant professor in the Division of Pediatric Hematology/Oncology.

“We are trying to tell them that there is a better treatment for them,” Collier said. “Caroline has improved our ability to do that,” because of her age and experience with cancer.

Hale will maintain the page even after she returns to the University of the South. And she plans to remain an ambassador for Vanderbilt and an advocate for cancer patients.

“I am one of the fortunate few who responded to chemotherapy, and I am so thankful that I still have my life,” she said. “Because of that, I'm committed to representing those who have lost their battle and helping cure others who are still fighting.”