“ Scars are beautiful, a support system is not optional, and two jelly belly candies in between each glass of barium won’t ruin your CT scan (but your mouth will thank me later).
Courtney Clark is one active mAss Kicker! She is a great example of how an intimidating cancer diagnosis can’t prevent you from doing what you feel is right. She has been involved with many organizations such as Planet Cancer, the LiveSTRONG Young Adult Alliance, and the Houston Humane Society. She is even starting her own nonprofit organization called Austin Involved. We were very lucky to find time to ask her a few questions.
mK: Why did you start Austin Involved? How did you get involved with Planet Cancer?
CC: I started Austin Involved because it was obvious, thanks to my time with Planet Cancer, that young people WANT a cause to be involved in, but sometimes it can be hard to find your calling. I mean, once the surgeons start cutting you open, you might realize cancer should be your thing. But if you HAVEN’T had that thrilling and not-entirely-enjoyable experience, you may not know what your passion as a volunteer advocate is, yet. Austin Involved is a way for young people in my town, Austin, to do a little experimenting and find that out.
I found the Planet Cancer community when I was post-treatment and back to reality, but felt like my friends and family didn’t quite get the lasting impact of my diagnosis. I needed to hear that I wasn’t a hypochondriacal worrywart, and thankfully I discovered Planet Cancer. I was already working in the nonprofit world, so when I later found a job posting about doing fundraising and marketing for a nonprofit specializing in young adults with cancer, I thought, “That’s my job!” I guess they thought so, too. 😉
mK: It’s funny how things fall into place. It’s really about finding opportunities and actually pursuing them. What/ when was your diagnosis? How did you find out about your diagnosis?
CC: I was diagnosed with malignant melanoma in November of 2005. I was 26 years old, newly married, in a new job, and living in a new city, far away from my family. I was actually on hold to be a bone marrow donor at the time, which was the worst irony of my diagnosis. I was a great match to a stranger off the registry, also a young adult. I turned on my cell phone one Sunday evening after a weekend getaway to find a 9pm voice mail from my dermatologist. Even when you aren’t expecting bad news, somehow the words “It’s your doctor. Call me no matter when you get this message. Here is my home number, here is my cell number,” make you realize your world is gonna change.
mK: Yeah, that’s kinda like when you were a little kid and you break something. Your parents call for you, but you KNOW what’s coming. You know something is going to happen, but you gotta face the music! What were your symptoms for melanoma?
CC: My only symptom was a large, growing mole on my right upper arm, which I have since dubbed VoldeWART. In typical young adult fashion, it didn’t look like what the doctors would have expected for cancer, so the only reason they biopsied it was because I insisted. I’m very lucky I did, because – though it was small on the surface – it was already invasive at stage 1b by the time we caught it.
mK: Besides Harry Potter, who is your hero or heroes?
CC: I have too many to count, but I’m happy to name a few. My fiancé has been the best support system a girl could ever ask for. The best part is, he thinks I’M strong, but he’s the one who bandages me after surgeries, drinks the last sip of barium in the radiology lab, and makes me dinner after a long day. I look up to Heidi Adams, founder of Planet Cancer, so much for the trail she blazed in starting PC and putting YA cancer on the map. And my family, for being the motliest crew of divergent personalities, who’ve taught me that it isn’t so hard, after all, to just keep loving one another.
mK: They are pretty cool. What motivates you?
CC: Every day I’m motivated to make someone’s life better. Whether it’s just holding the door for the UPS guy with his hands full, or complimenting someone who needs a lift, or doing my volunteer work, I feel like I’ve done my job if at the end of the day SOMEONE goes “ya know, today wasn’t so bad.”
mK: When was the first time you felt like yourself after your diagnosis?
CC: My second week back after surgery. At the time, I was working at a Humane Society, and one day found an injured dog someone had just dumped there and left. After the vet bandaged her up and kept her quiet for awhile, I wanted to take her out for a walk. I leashed her up and took her outside, and out of nowhere she jumped up and wrapped her paws around me, like in a hug. The combination of emotion and goofiness – which I always look for in life – reminded me of who I was.
mK: Those “AHA moments” always come when you least expect it! What makes you laugh, cry, angry?
CC: Pretty much everything makes me laugh. I’m lucky that way. I cry when I feel helpless. The one thing that really angers me is injustice. I have a bad habit where I wish I possessed a magic power that could show mean people that they’re mean, and they’d suddenly get a clue. I waste a lot of time wishing I could do that, actually.
mK: What would you say is the most interesting thing you’ve done?
CC: Besides starting a nonprofit? I’d have to say sing with a swing band. I lived in New York City in the late 90s, back when swing had its resurgence. I fronted a swing band, got paid to chill in clubs till 3 in the morning, learned how to dance, and even cut a demo tape.
mK: Serious question for ya “daddy-o”… What was the toughest challenge you faced as a young survivor? How did you overcome it?
CC: The toughest challenge I faced was within myself, and coping with the axe I felt was hanging over my head. Diagnosed so young, you could wait forever for the other shoe to drop and recurrence to happen. I spent too much time caught up in that. I still worry at my 3 month appointments (scanxiety!), but I can control it now.
mK: Changing topics… what is your guilty pleasure?
CC: Broadway musical soundtracks. Although if I don’t really feel guilty about it, does that count?
mK: HAHAHA… then it’s not a “guilty pleasure.” New Question… If you could be invisible for one day, what would you do and why?
CC: Oooh, I think I’d observe what my crazy dog does to the other pets in the house when she doesn’t know I’m there. She’s a terrible bossy alpha when I’m around, but other people say she isn’t that bad when I’m gone.
mK: She knows “Who’s the Boss” and it ain’t Tony Danza! What do you like to do in your spare time?
CC: As you’d expect from someone in my business, I do a lot of volunteer work. I teach life skills to kids in foster care who are going to turn 18 having never gotten adopted, and I foster animals for our local humane society. I’m also (slowly) learning how to cook, and I keep sane with yoga.
mK: Jeez… do you take a break? What are you doing now?
CC: Getting ready for Austin Involved’s first big volunteer day, and wrapping my baby sister’s 21st birthday present.
mK: Any advice for people or loved ones that get daunting diagnoses?
CC: Be prepared to have two separate but equal support systems. Your friends and family, who probably won’t really “get” what you are going through, and a new support system you find in the cancer world. Don’t forget that you DO need both.
mK: Tell us something about yourself that people probably didn’t know… anything.
CC: I broke my nose surfing last year. It only chipped the end, so you wouldn’t be able to tell just by looking at me, but the whole experience freaked me out and now I’m afraid to surf again. It’s a shame, because one of my best friends is an adorable surfer chick, but I just can’t bring myself to ever join her.
mK: A lot of people don’t realize you’re more likely to get hurt by your surfboard then you will be attacked by a shark! On that note… any parting words for all the mAss Kickers?
CC: Scars are beautiful, a support system is not optional, and two jelly belly candies in between each glass of barium won’t ruin your CT scan (but your mouth will thank me later).
Thanks Courtney for spending some time with us! Check out her new nonprofit Austin Involved! We wish you the best of luck with it although we doubt you’ll need it. Just do us a favor, don’t let your dog boss you around!