Eden Blum, a human resources program coordinator in the Office of Faculty, Staff and Retiree Programs, didn't need to go far to feel cancer's presence in her life. Blum's grandfather had colon cancer, her father was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease when he was 26 years old, and in 1988 Blum's mother was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Thankfully, both her mother and father are cancer-free, and Blum says her life, for the most part, was relatively unaffected by their sicknesses. "When my mom was diagnosed, I was a junior in high school, and she kind of sheltered me from her treatments," says Blum, adding that her father had become sick before she was born, "so I wasn't exposed to it too much."
It wasn't until her mother had a reoccurrence of her breast cancer in 1997 that Blum began to think she was next in line.
"Then it hit me. I said, I'm going to get [cancer]. My grandfather, my mother, my father--that's it, I'm getting it. I better just beware," Blum says. "But never did I think that it would happen 11 months later. And never did I think that 11 months later I was going to be in a much worse situation than she was in."
In November of 1997, Blum was diagnosed with stage-three rectal cancer. Her doctors gave her no definite prognosis or percentage chance of survival, but Blum, who says she had done her homework, knew that stage four was the most severe case of this type of cancer, and she was on the wrong side of the middle mark.
However, Blum says that despite the initial shock, she took the news in stride.
"I figured this is what life had dealt me," Blum says. "In some ways I was prepared for it. I knew deep down inside that sometime in my life, cancer was going to be in my body."
Surgery would follow, and then a series of chemotherapy and radiation treatments. During her initial treatments, Blum says, she was pleasantly distracted by the planning of her wedding and managed to remain very positive. Then something began to bother her.
"It was during my chemotherapy and radiation treatments that it really dawned on me. I said, my gosh, here I am, a cancer survivor. My mother's a survivor; my father's a survivor. Isn't it time we do something, like speak out. I don't know, do something besides continuing to get treatment and just moving on with our lives," Blum says.
As she continued to visit her doctors on a regular basis, Blum's condition began to improve and stabilize. Two weeks before her radiation treatments were to begin, Blum read in a local paper about a support group for young people with cancer. It was set to run for six weeks, the same length of time as her radiation treatments.
Most of those in the group had gone through prolonged and agonizing treatments, Blum says, and she was inspired by their stories of survival and drew strength from their support. This inspiration led Blum to consider community work involving those with cancer, so that she could share her experience with others.
The opportunity came at the 1998 Relay For Life in Howard County, a signature event of the American Cancer Society, a United Way-affiliated agency. The Relay For Life is an all-day event during which some member of each team must be walking or running on the track at all times. Blum had learned of the event from a fellow support-group member.
Blum joined a team along with her mother and her husband, Henry. She says the emotion of walking the first lap is still vivid in her mind.
"I was hysterically crying. I had just finished chemotherapy, and here I am with all these survivors, saying, What an event," Blum says. For this year's Relay For Life, held in June, Blum organized her own team, Team Smile, which included her father as well as her mother and husband.
This past summer, Blum and her mother also served as counselors at Camp Sunrise, a one-week summer camp for children who have or have had cancer. Blum called the Camp Sunrise experience, save for the days that surrounded her wedding, the "best week of her life." And she says she was glad she could share that time with her mother and fellow cancer survivor.
Not a day goes by that she doesn't talk to her mother or father, Blum says, and for the past two years the relationship between the three has grown immeasurably, due in part to the bond they now share.
"My parents never really did anything to reach out to the community before I did this stuff, and I think now they really feel a sense of commitment to it--not just because of me, but because of themselves," Blum says. "It's really brought us together."
The United Way of Central Maryland's Campaign aims to help other people like Blum by earmarking 37 percent of the dollars raised to the Strengthening Families portion of its 1999 campaign. Strengthening Families, which benefits agencies such as the American Cancer Society and programs like Camp Sunrise, also supports organizations and agencies that increase the well-being of families by teaching parental skills, reducing substance abuse and increasing access to health care services.
Blum says she is now cancer-free, and her personal fight against the disease was aided by those who offered support. Now she wants to continue to tell other people afflicted with cancer to seek whatever level of support is available to them.
"I guess the way I feel is you really need to educate people about cancer, and we need people to know that cancer is not a deadly diagnosis; people do survive it," Blum says. "But part of getting through it is not just being physically healthy but also being mentally healthy."
That positive mental attitude, Blum says, comes from surrounding yourself with people who care and understand what you are going through.
"You need to get your story out there and share," Blum says. "You can't keep it bottled up inside. You are not helping yourself, and you are certainly not helping anyone else."