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GUEST COMMENTARY: How a cancer diagnosis at 35 inspired me to create joy in others' lives

GUEST COMMENTARY: How a cancer diagnosis at 35 inspired me to create joy in others' lives

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I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2015 at age 35. So much of my life can be categorized as BC and AC (before cancer and after cancer) because my outlook on life changed.

When I went through cancer, I felt overwhelmingly helpless and lived in a space where hope was just a word. I’m not being over-dramatic — ask anyone who has battled a disease, lost a loved one or faced any sort of personal tragedy — no matter how positive a person you are, it’s a tough road to travel back to the light.

But when I emerged from cancer, I felt I needed to make the life I fought so hard for mean something more. I couldn’t quit my job and abandon my loved ones for an “Eat, Pray, Love” journey. I wanted to bring about good and create joy in others’ lives in ways that I haven’t in the past.

But at the same time, I’m reminded that this isn’t an easy task. Our society has undergone this transformation where anger, self-interest, arrogance, isolation and hate garner more headlines and monopolize our social media feeds more than ever. When we’re mad at someone we can easily send a quick, nasty text or put a snarky comment on their Facebook post. It’s easier to be mean than to be nice.

For those who know me, they know I’m an idealist who believes in the good in people — sometimes to my detriment when they hurt me or don’t return that same love back. But after going through cancer I believed that I could bring a little joy to others’ lives by using my skills in a positive way.

When you wade through the Facebook junk, you find posts about a mother caring for a special needs child, a high school best friend celebrating another friend’s milestone birthday, a husband describing his love for his wife on their anniversary, a father excited that his adopted daughter was graduating. The good stuff.

But beyond writing and reading about good people, I wanted to put my own positive mark on the world. With only a couple more reconstructive surgeries ahead of me, I started volunteering in 2016 at St. Columbanus Parish and Augustus Tolton Academy, a poor school and church on the South Side of Chicago. 

And I met true unsung heroes — people who see the good in their community despite the negative headlines. I helped with the food pantry, which feeds about 500 households a week; created an art mentorship program, where Chicago artists teach the students about new ways to communicate through art; assisted with fundraising and social media; and overall immersed myself in this wonderful community.

And I created the project, Humor Beats Cancer, a website for those in their 20s, 30s and 40s to share humorous stories from their cancer journeys in the spirit of empathy and joy. Read more about it in this Times story. People from all over the world share their stories and connect with each other over a common thread.

Both of those experiences introduced me to so many people giving of themselves in such deep, unselfish ways. When The Times approached me about writing a monthly column, I saw this as the next step in my quest to bring more happiness to the world. There is so much sad news in the world that’s only magnified through social media. I plan to use this column to shine a light on the good in the world: the unsung heroes, the volunteers, the thought leaders — the good people helping others and bringing joy to their space in the world.

My ask: If you know anyone who fits the bill, or if you are one of those people, please contact me and share your stories.

Olivia Clarke grew up in Northwest Indiana and is a writer who works in public relations. Her website, Humor Beats Cancer, can be found at She can be reached at The opinions are the writer's.


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