Debbie Cornwall: Volunteer extraordinaire fights back with passion

Debbie Cornwall of Massachusetts

It’s hard to believe that Debbie Cornwall could become even more passionate about supporting the American Cancer Society mission. But that’s what happened, once she experienced Relay For Life.

“I knew a lot about ACS and held it in high regard,” says Debbie, a breast cancer survivor who wrapped up a three-year stint on the American Cancer Society’s New England Division Board in 2011. “Even though the work I did with the Board helped me to understand intellectually what the ACS does and why it’s vitally important, being part of Relay opened my eyes to how deeply personal and important the event is.”

Cornwall is now co-chair of her local Relay, and has brought her trademark level of passion and innovation to the event.

“These are people who have had to fight for their lives or who have a huge hole in their life because of cancer. Seeing that changes your perspective on the ACS mission as it pertains to your own community, she says.”

Debbie, along with Elizabeth Spurr, chairs the American Cancer Society’s Relay For Life of Marshfield, Duxbury, Hanover, Norwell, and Pembroke, MA, and will lead the event for the third time in the spring.

While Debbie spends time promoting the event, overseeing logistics, and soliciting donations from local businesses, she also makes room on her schedule to promote advocay as it pertains to the fight against cancer, and she is a proud member of the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network (ACS CAN), the nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy affiliate of the American Cancer Society.

“I had been selected to attend the ‘Celebration on the Hill’ in Washington D.C. as part of the advocacy effort, and it was mentioned to me that I should learn more about Relay because there were similarities,” Debbie notes. “It turned out to be useful preparation and the events certainly do share some characteristics. In my opinion, it’s important to educate Relay-involved people about the advocacy side of the ACS.”

Debbie has chosen the most powerful educational tool of all to introduce her Relay participants to advocacy in action – evidence of success.

In February 2012, Debbie took her event’s Planning Committee to the AstraZeneca Hope Lodge Center in Boston, where the group prepared and served a meal and heard from guests who have benefited from cutting-edge research and treatment options.

She also arranged for the team captains and the public to see and hear a presentation from ACS-funded researcher Shannon Stott, Ph.D.

Dr. Stott, who received a three-year Society research grant after being rejected by the National Institutes of Health, created a “CTC” chip that offers a unique opportunity for the detection of tumor cells from patients with early stage cancer, the ability to genetically characterize tumor cells without an invasive biopsy, and to determine responsiveness to new targeted cancer drugs.

“I believe that if we can get influential people to hear what is being done, especially a first-person account from a researcher who has made promising discoveries, it will help build an appreciation of advocacy and drive that mission forward,” Debbie says.

She has no doubt that the work she has put into Relay has paid off.

“Since I’ve been involved in Relay, I’ve had the opportunity to network in my community on many levels. I find it stunning how often I find myself in a conversation with someone who shares that they are a survivor or shares their personal story of loss. Those interactions are probably what has kept me going and kept me motivated,” she says.

“There is nothing superficial about the relationships you form because you’re bonded by having common values. It’s a supportive network, and I’ve benefitted greatly from relationships with people on other Relay committees and chairs who exchange ideas and share strengths. I’ve met people who will be my friends well after my involvement with Relay ends.”

In 2013, Debbie was awarded the Society's prestigious St. George Award.