Cancer affects virtually everyone. In Pennsylvania alone, over 78,000 people were diagnosed with some form of the disease in 2016, with one in two people developing cancer over the course of their lifetime according to the Pennsylvania Department of Health. If it's a challenge you never personally face, cancer has likely affected the life of someone you know. The prevalence of this devastating illness is tragic, but when it comes to finding a cure, survivors and their loved ones have proven that there truly is strength in numbers.
The American Cancer Society (ACS) is one of the country's leading nonprofits fighting to find a cure for cancer and build a community among survivors and supporters. As the organization's Senior Community Development Manager in Pittsburgh, Emma Craven is spearheading the local chapter's efforts to both raise funds for a cure and empower people whose lives have been forever changed by this disease.
Craven has been involved with the ACS in some capacity since she was just twelve years old when she participated in her first Relay for Life event. Over time, she moved up the ranks from volunteer to team captain, eventually overseeing the event itself. The same year that Craven decided to apply for her current position, though, her role with the ACS became personal when her father was diagnosed with prostate cancer.
"He began treatment in 2015," recalls Craven. "I was getting married in 2016, and at the time, there was a road bump in his treatments and we were exploring possibilities because we weren't sure if he'd be able to walk me down the aisle. But thankfully, the treatment worked. He performed our ceremony and was able to walk me down the aisle."
Craven's father was cleared of cancer in 2017, but she says she has several aunts who are currently battling cancer and one passed away from it just last year. The impact that cancer has had on her life alone has helped push her forward in her efforts, but she also draws inspiration from the volunteers and survivors she meets on the job.
"In my hometown Relay for Life, I've had a friend who's one of the event leads. Her sister is in her early 30s and battling stage 4 breast cancer," she says. "Reading her stories online and everything she's going through is a reminder of how our community has rallied around her. It's amazing. I have several runners who have lost the person they were running for during the training process. The runners that this has happened to are in their late 20s or early 30s. Seeing the determination they have is amazing."
The word "determination" is what comes to mind when describing the dedicated nature of the volunteers and participants in ACS fundraising events, so it was only fitting that it was the name chosen for the organization's endurance series. Craven says that DetermiNation, which encompasses events like marathons and half-marathons, has "ignited a new passion" in her.
"I've met people who've met their own personal goals through DetermiNation events. We've participated in the Pittsburgh Marathon in the past two years. We've had over 200 runners, and I can call the majority of them close friends. It has a long way to go in the Pittsburgh area, but it's picking up steam. Right now, my focus is growing and expanding it."
Never the type to watch from the sidelines, Craven runs right alongside the other participants. She was a "casual runner" for a while, participating in many local 5 and 10Ks and running three half-marathons. But recently, she completed her first full marathon with Team DetermiNation in Minnesota.
"There were a lot of tears," she says. "The training process was something that I've never experienced before, in terms of a time commitment. A lot of lonely, long runs. Getting to race weekend and being on the course with 7,000 people was amazing. You see a lot of people wearing singlets saying, 'I'm running for my mom, son, sister who passed away.' You go from, 'Why did I do to this to myself?' to, 'I'm running for more than just myself,' when you finish. The sense of accomplishment is unlike anything I've ever experienced."
In addition to donating to or volunteering with the ACS, Craven encourages people to get involved through programs like Road to Recovery, which provides cancer patients with transportation to and from their treatment appointments. "I'm a Road to Recovery driver, too, in my spare time," she says. "Even if you can only give two rides per month (or even per year), it's still two more than people were getting before."
Whether you're ready to run a marathon or prefer to fight cancer from behind your steering wheel, there are plenty of ways to help the ACS get the support and funding they need. With all the free services that the ACS offers, there are plenty of ways that everyday people can become heroes to cancer survivors in need. Visit the ACS website to learn more about how you can help.