Student reflects on family journey with cancer for National Family Caregivers Month

November 15, 2022
By: Deborah Alvarez O'Neil

In October, President Joe Biden proclaimed November 2022 as National Family Caregivers Month, a time to “recognize the love and sacrifice of more than 50 million Americans providing crucial care and medical assistance to parents, children, siblings, and other loved ones, ensuring their health and dignity.” Caregivers are all around us – often bearing heavy responsibilities for loved ones, even as they hold jobs or attend college. To mark this time, occupational therapy junior Zoe Kalaijakis is sharing her story with the Worcester State University community.

Kalaijakis is the first recipient of the Rosen Cancer Fund Scholarship, which is awarded to students with a cancer diagnosis or students with family members affected by cancer. She is also the newly appointed intern for the Rosen Cancer Awareness Fund internship at the Wellness Center, where she will help coordinate cancer awareness and educational initiatives for students. The fund was created by Gregg ’86 and Pam ’87 Rosen after Gregg was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s Follicular Lymphoma. Through the Rosen Cancer Awareness Fund, Worcester State University will build a comprehensive program for cancer awareness, research, education and support for students.

In an interview with Communications Director Deborah O’Neil, Kalaijakis reflects on the importance of caregivers, her family journey with cancer, and why the Rosen Cancer Awareness Fund is important:

Congratulations on being selected as the inaugural Rosen Cancer Awareness Fund Intern! What are you hoping to accomplish in this role?
First and foremost, I would like to thank the Rosens for allowing me to be a part of this journey, it is such an honor. Within this role my hope is to be able to promote cancer awareness and support those going through a similar situation as my family and I. It can be so challenging to be a family member, friend, significant other, etc. of a cancer patient, it’s extremely comforting to know that there are people in your corner. I would love nothing more than to provide that sense of understanding and friendship for others.

It’s National Family Caregivers Month, can you tell us about your experience supporting those going through cancer?
This foundation is very personal to me, my Dad has brain cancer (astrocytoma) and my sister recently entered remission from stage 4 non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. My dad has had this diagnosis since before I was born and has gone through many many many different scans, chemo treatments, radiation and brain surgeries. Unfortunately, his cancer cannot be cured, it is just something he has to live with and monitor. Because of the placement of his tumor, if they were to remove all of it he would lose all his memories, and he is not willing to do that. Over the years the scar tissue in his brain has moved a few times causing seizures which is very scary for my mom, sister and myself.

My sister was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer in October 2019, my senior year of high school. She was 32 at the time. She has two children. My older nephew was 2 and my younger nephew was 2 months old at the time of the initial diagnosis. I became one of the primary caretakers of my sister and my nephews alongside my parents and brother in law, but most of the responsibility fell on me because they all had to continue working.

These past few years have been traumatic to say the least. My sister is my best friend and watching her suffer without being able to help was easily the worst feeling ever. Her cancer was very complicated because her tumor was across her abdomen and touched more than four organs. This led to a number of issues and chemotherapy did not help. She then received a drug called methotrexate, which didn’t work as well. She ended up joining a clinical trial, and in December of 2020 her scan came back with no active lymphoma. There had been several times I had to rush home from Worcester State to take care of the boys while she endured treatments or was being rushed to the emergency room.

Over winter break this year my sister had to undergo a very high-risk surgery in which she had to remove her spleen due to all the trauma her body had endured and, thank God, she survived. Trying to balance a pandemic, two family members with cancer, taking care of my nephews, adjusting to moving to college and starting a very intense major has put my strength to the test. But with the resources we are trying to promote through the Rosen Cancer Fund, hopefully, we will be able to raise awareness, aid in prevention and spread the word.

How have your experiences motivated you to be an ambassador for cancer awareness?
Living through the experiences I have and continue to live through has motivated me to become an ambassador for cancer awareness for sure. I myself was very unprepared for the diagnosis my sister received and it really opened my eyes that cancer does not discriminate. Cancer doesn’t care whether or not you’re rich or poor, old or young, married or divorced, a parent or sibling. Cancer does not care about your gender or race, cancer can affect anyone. The topic can be an uncomfortable one, but it is so important to bring awareness in order to have early recognition, education, and be able to be a support for others.

This summer, I ran the Falmouth Road race as a part of the Dana Farber Cancer Institute team, this was easily one of the best things I have ever done. Being able to raise research money for not only my loved ones, but others too, was amazing to say the least.

What advice would you have for fellow students supporting family members with cancer?
My best advice would be to lean on those who are there for you. Being a support system can be draining, this isn’t typically talked about, but it’s important. Taking care of yourself is so important in order to continue to support your family. Do not be afraid to ask for help, this is an extremely heavy responsibility and situation, there is no shame in asking for help or even a break. You are not alone. Sometimes it may feel like it, but you never know what others are going through. You are not alone.

Where do you find strength and hope?
I find strength and hope in my family. My parents, my sister and my nephews are my reason. They are the most important people in my life and everyday they give me strength and hope. My sister and my dad have defied all odds against them. They have unmatched strength and bravery. I could not be more proud to call them my family.

What resources have you found to be helpful in your role as a caregiver?
I have found it helpful to reach out to people going through similar situations in order to just vent and talk about the trials and tribulations.

Why is it important for a university to promote cancer awareness, education, and research?
Typically, people are unaware of how often cancer affects people and how to detect it early. With early detection there are higher chances of survival. If we can provide important information to people, we can promote the importance of taking care of yourself to avoid wasting any time to catch a diagnosis or to avoid things that can be cancer causing. It’s also important to promote for the family members of cancer patients. There are many people who are living with cancer and with those people come families that are suffering as well. It can be so hard to feel like you are alone and with promoting this Fund it allows people to connect and find support.

Top photo: Gregg and Pam Rosen with Worcester State student Zoe Kalaijakis, who is the first recipient of the Rosen Cancer Awareness Fund scholarship.

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