How Friar alumni are changing the face of cancer support with buddhi.
By alumna guest blogger Kathleen Brown ’00
Starting a new school without many friends is rough. Doing it while 14 years old and in cancer treatment out of state was less than ideal. For the first four months at Fenwick, I was back and forth between Chicago and Memphis — where St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital is based — receiving chemotherapy and radiation treatments for a rare form of bone cancer.
Meanwhile, I tried to fit in with my new classmates and keep my illness, wig and scars under wraps, somewhat unsuccessfully. It helped having an older brother (Kevin Brown ’98*) there to look out for me, but ultimately until I started to open up about what I was going through, it was challenging for me to make genuine connections and begin to heal. It was in the Fenwick cafeteria where I told new friends about my illness, and in the women’s bathroom adjacent where I exposed my wig and began to see that, although I was different in some ways, we were all going through something.
As I looked forward to my final chemotherapy treatment in early December freshman year — ready to put cancer behind me — I was unprepared for the mental-health crisis compounded by the loss of my guardian angel, Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, to a cancer recurrence two weeks before.
I was fortunate enough to meet Cardinal Bernardin at the start of my cancer journey, and we became pen pals; he was one of the only people I felt comfortable opening up to about my real feelings. It felt like “my friend Joe” and I understood each other.
Several months into my treatment protocol, while at the local children’s hospital where we met, I developed a staph infection that eventually sent my body into septic shock. Without much hope of my survival, my parents asked him to perform the Anointing of the Sick. Miraculously, my vitals stabilized and they were able to transfer my care to St. Jude, where we stayed connected through letters and phone calls. (This was before the days of the Internet, cell phones and social media!) Although I didn’t have any friends my age in cancer treatment, it was comforting to know that he had been through it and, as a survivor, did so much to support others.
When I learned of his passing on November 14th, the grief and loss I felt was suffocating. Until then, as a naive teenager, cancer had been an inconvenience; a temporary setback. I could not comprehend how the disease could take this incredible man’s life and spare my own. While my family and friends prepared to celebrate the end of my treatment and Christmas at home, I put on a brave face — and quietly plotted to end my life.
Survivor’s guilt is one of the many mental-health side effects that cancer patients experience and are ill-equipped to manage on their own. If I expressed how I really felt — sad, scared sh!tless, angry, anxious — how would it make my loved ones feel? For so many of us, it feels like we’re the only one in pain, but suffering is part of the shared human experience.
I credit my family, friends and teachers at Fenwick, and social activities I engaged in (Student Council, softball, basketball, Campus Ministry and Kairos) for getting me through my darkest days. Once I began to share, the world seemed to open up, and I got more comfortable being myself, scars and all. After I was declared “cancer-free,” I got involved in giving back to the community, through a variety of fundraising activities for St. Jude and as a mentor to many other patients. As a public speaker, volunteer, event organizer and board member, I found fulfillment in serving others, and living Fenwick values to lead, achieve and serve. Despite finding success in advertising sales for over a decade with Comcast and Disney/ESPN, I yearned to do more with St. Jude and accepted a fundraising leadership position to work for a fellow Friar (Jenny DiBenedetto-McKenna ’97) in 2014, where I spent five years in field event and corporate development — a true dream job.
During my time fundraising for St. Jude, I got to meet thousands of people impacted by cancer. With our shared experience; I learned how many were also putting on a brave face, quietly suffering in silence while their friends and family had no idea about their private struggles. On nights and weekends, I sketched ideas of a “pipe dream” business plan for a platform that would bridge the divide between patients and well-intentioned supporters; where patients in treatment and recovery could connect with each other in an online community with events and resources that felt more fun and upbeat — like a place you wanted to go back to. And users would be empowered to share how they were feeling with a social tool, complete with helpful prompts for family and friends to support them with love notes or wellness wallet funds that could be redeemed for things like a meditation app or a therapy session.
I was reminded about the gift of wellness in January 2019, when results from a secondary cancer biopsy came back clear of disease, and decided to leave my job at St. Jude and go all-in to make buddhi (“to be awake”) a reality, because when it comes to coping with cancer, we could all use a bud. After months of research and development, I raised capital (from a number of Friar alumni!) to build the platform and make strategic hires to launch in October 2020, with the first being our Community Director, who also happens to be my sister, Meagan Brown ’07.
While we are just getting started, with social and marketplace features coming in the first quarter of 2021, buddhi has already made a big impact in the lives of thousands of cancer thrivers and supporters. None of it would be possible if not for support from the Fenwick community and the values instilled in us to lead with service. I have audacious goals for what buddhi can accomplish, because the need is both great and urgent, given compounded isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic. No one should have to go through cancer alone, and I am reminded daily of the power of community to heal.
* Brian ’95, Kevin ’98, Kathleen ’00 and Meagan Brown ’07 are the children of Mary Kay and Fenwick alumnus/Hall of Famer Pete Brown ’71, whose father, Roger, was a proud member of the Friars’ Class of 1946.