How Experiences with Cancer Thrivers Changed my Perspective

Jay Staff

 I will never forget my college experience, but that is for very different reasons than most college students. It was not because of the endless parties, staying up all night, or enjoying my independence. It was because during my junior year, I was with my older brother when he heard the words, “You have cancer.”

I didn’t know how to support him. There was my best friend and brother, looking like the world as he knew it had dropped out beneath him. I did the one thing I knew I could do and what he always loved about our relationship: I made him smile and laugh in an uncomfortable situation. 

The rest of college was a roller coaster ride as I tried to support my brother emotionally during this cancer journey. This roller coaster led me to a path in life I never would have imagined: making a career in the nonprofit space and working for a cancer organization called Epic Experience.

After my brother’s journey, I had become very passionate about the cancer community. I wanted to be a part of it and shine light in what could be a dark time for many impacted by their own cancer diagnoses. People often ask if working in the cancer community is hard or depressing. It’s exactly the opposite. I am blessed to have so many amazing, genuine people come into my life with whom I can create memories and friendships with that will last a lifetime. 

My experiences with these cancer thrivers and survivors  have also changed my perspective on aspects of my own day-to-day life. One example is how I view getting older or having a birthday. I recall growing up and society teaching me that getting older isn’t something positive; some would even consider it a burden. Now I look at birthdays as something that should be celebrated—no matter my age. Each minute, day, year is a gift, and it is up to us how we celebrate and use that gift. I’ve gained this new perspective through spending time with our campers around the fire, during a game of bocce ball at night, or simply sitting back and watching them thrive on the Colorado River. They get it better than anyone ever could.

At Epic Experience I have the honor of being the program director at our weeklong camps. In the summer, I encourage people to raft and kayak down the river. In the winter, I challenge them to run down hills in snow shoes. No matter what the season, I encourage adult cancer survivors and thrivers to play like kids again. At the core of all of this playing are the memories created, the conversations shared around the campfire, the laughter and smiles enjoyed while trying to learn something new and looking a little bit awkward, and the tears shared as we wonder if and when we will see each other again. 

Through my program director role, I have the unique opportunity to empower adult cancer thrivers, but at the same time, it gives me a place where I personally can continue to grow and heal. I have shared some of my most intimate and buried secrets with people I met just a few days prior. I hear the thank yous from campers, but honestly at the end of the week, I thank them. I thank them for trusting in us and our program, for listening to me share my heartaches and successes, and for becoming my friends. These thrivers become a part of the Epic Experience family for years to come. Because of these amazing people, my own son, Cameron, will grow up in a family full of diverse perspectives through which we can grow, learn, understand, and most of all, continue to create memories.

We all want to live till we are 100, but what good is that timeline if we aren’t making memories and celebrating each day? That is what my career at Epic Experience has given me—the celebration of each moment and each day.