When David Warren’s father, Steve, was diagnosed in 2011 with a very rare form of brain cancer, David did what any well-educated, resource-rich person would do: He became his father’s chief advocate.
“Dad had so many different doctors, so many experts on the cancer, the treatment and the related health issues, but I wanted to be the expert on the patient,” Warren told me.
“I vowed to be there for my dad through every appointment. I created a form to take with us to doctor visits that listed the medications he was on and refills he needed, what updates we had for each doctor since the last visit and what questions we needed answered.”
The systematic approach that Warren and his father used to fight a complex form of cancer got the notice of a neuro-oncologist at the Comprehensive Cancer Center at Wake Forest Baptist Health in Winston-Salem, N.C., where Steve was receiving treatment. The doctor suggested to the father-son team that their method for attacking such a serious diagnosis could help many others.
Before Steve succumbed to his cancer in 2013, he and David created Take the Fight, a nonprofit army of college undergraduates specially trained to advocate for those battling cancer. The students help patients who aren’t lucky enough to have someone like David already by their side.
With the help of doctors and administrators at Wake Forest Baptist Health, Take the Fight opened an office on site and began training its first class of strategists. The all-volunteer-led organization paired students from Wake Forest University with patients at the cancer center.
Philippe Ayres, a senior from Maryland studying biology, learned about Take the Fight in a sophomore-year chemistry class.
“We had a recruiter come in and talk about this amazing opportunity to volunteer to be paired with patients one-on-one to help them fight their cancer, and I jumped in,” said Ayres, who is studying to become a doctor but will work with Take the Fight for a year after graduation to help spread the program nationally.
“The experience is incredible because you meet this complete stranger and they let you into their life,” Ayres said in an interview. “You get to see the real struggles people go through. … It’s humbling because there is sadness, but at the same time it’s life-affirming. I had a patient who couldn’t eat or taste, but she still came in every day with a positive attitude, always joking and playing. That makes a real impact on you.”
The student strategists help patients by asking questions and taking notes at doctor appointments, compiling medication lists, creating contact lists – simple things that can get lost during stressful encounters that are often accompanied by blood draws and other tasks that go into managing such a severe illness.
Some of the patients are low-income with few resources, while others simply lack family support. All get an experience uniquely tailored to their individual situations.
For instance, one patient was a registered nurse with the medical knowledge and resources to navigate the health care system but who lived on her own. She was paired with a student who, in effect, was simply there to hold her hand throughout her struggle – no small thing.
One of David Warren’s proudest achievements since he helped launch Take the Fight is the positive response from the oncologists the organization has worked with.
“The doctors tell us definitively that we have improved patient outcomes,” Warren said.
Next up is a push to move the model out of North Carolina and expand not only across the United States, but also to the United Kingdom and Canada. The organization has launched a new two-year fellowship program for college students in their senior years that includes a year of full-time work at Take the Fight headquarters following graduation. There they will work to develop tangible solutions to the problems they experienced in the health system during their first year as patient advocates.
“We are accepting applications now through Nov. 25,” Warren told me, emphasizing that “we are not looking for people who want a good line on their resumé. We want passionate people who care and want to make a difference.”
If that’s you, or if you know a college student who would be perfect for the program, the application is available at takethefight.org/apply.
Hurry – there are cancer patients across the country who desperately need an advocate. And with their love, courage and gratitude, the patients have much to give in return.
Esther Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.