Hodgkin Lymphoma Survivor Pours Her Energy into Volunteering

Written By:Stacy Simon

American Cancer Society Survivor Speaker Jemma Cabral tells audiences she hopes they never take another birthday for granted. A 2-time survivor of Hodgkin lymphoma, she certainly doesn’t. In fact, she measures significant events of her cancer journey in birthdays. She was diagnosed on her father’s birthday, began chemotherapy for a relapse on hers, left the hospital the day before her son’s, and had a stem cell transplant on her doctor’s. After her recovery, she began volunteering for the American Cancer Society, with most of her focus on Relay For Life and the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network. This year she was named a Stakeholder for the Society’s research department.

From patient to volunteer

Cabral was 23 years old in 2002 when she was diagnosed with stage IIIB Hodgkin lymphoma, an advanced form of the disease that requires intensive treatment. Her cancer was not diagnosed right away, despite symptoms that included recurring fever up to 104˚, drenching night sweats, unexplained weight loss, loss of appetite, and enlarged lymph nodes in her neck. She began 6 months of chemotherapy, then went into remission (the cancer was under control).

Cabral returned to work, but 4 months later had a relapse – the cancer came back. This time she had an autologous stem cell transplant. In this type of transplant, Cabral's own blood stem cells were removed and stored while she received high-dose chemotherapy. The stem cells were then given back to Cabral by infusion into her blood to restore her bone marrow.

Her boss and co-workers were supportive, working around her transplant schedule and even donating blood. One co-worker in particular was to have a dramatic effect on Cabral’s future. Herself a Hodgkin lymphoma survivor, she reached out to Cabral with practical information and emotional support. And she introduced Cabral to the American Cancer Society and its community fundraising event Relay For Life.

A leader is born

"As a 2-time cancer survivor, I have made it my personal mission to make a difference in the lives of those who have been touched by cancer. To make a difference in this world you don't always have to do something earth shattering; you can do something as simple as walk and talk."

Jemma Cabral

Cabral attended her first Relay For Life meeting at her local American Cancer Society office in Arlington Heights, Illinois. There, she was asked to be the event’s honorary chair and give the survivor speech. As Cabral says, “The rest is history.” Since then she has delivered more than 30 speeches, served on several committees, and chaired 3 events in 2 different states.

“As a 2-time cancer survivor,” said Cabral, “I have made it my personal mission to make a difference in the lives of those who have been touched by cancer. To make a difference in this world you don’t always have to do something earth shattering; you can do something as simple as walk and talk.”

In 2009, in honor of the 25th anniversary of Relay For Life, Cabral decided to attend at least 25 events in honor and memory of 25 people whose lives had been touched by cancer. In the end, she attended a total of 30 events in 6 states, Puerto Rico, and Canada.

Supporting research

According to Cabral, “I am alive today because someone did research to find out how to use stem cells to save my life.”

Because of that, she is determined to talk to whoever will listen, and raise as much money as possible for cancer research. As a volunteer for the Society’s advocacy affiliate, the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network (ACS CAN), Cabral has spoken to lawmakers on Capitol Hill about the need for more federal funding for cancer research.

Today, Cabral is a Stakeholder for the American Cancer Society’s research department. As a member of the Health Policy and Health Services peer review committee, she evaluates grant applications to help identify the most promising cancer research proposals.

A real champion

Cabral plans to spend her life working to end cancer. But she doesn’t want her contribution to end there. She has become a Society Champion by designating the American Cancer Society as a beneficiary in investments she holds. She sees this as a way to leave behind a legacy of her own survivorship.

Cabral said, “You don’t have to be 50 or 60 to be a Champion. I want people my age to see that you don’t have to be older to make a difference; you can make a difference at any age.”

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Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

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