Have you ever met someone you knew—immediately upon your first handshake (or IG Live)—had an intense passion for their calling? If you have, then you must’ve met Kathleen. She’s a cancer survivor, fundraising champ, founder, and visionary who created buddhi to make the cancer experience suck a lot less than her’s did. This is her story.
Cancer isn’t “kid stuff,” but it was for Kathleen.
Beating high-jump PRs at track practice, cheering on Chicago sports, and crushing on cute classmates—sounds like usual teenager stuff, right? But for Kathleen, this time of her life was interrupted when she had an unusual school physical during the summer before eighth grade began.
She had a “routine” outpatient surgery scheduled after her pediatrician found a small bump on her back, which was suspected to be an injury from track and field. But that surgery turned out to be 8.5 hours long after surgeons discovered that the bump was actually a cancerous tumor hiding in her ribcage. At 13, she was diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer, shattering all the dreams she had for the future in an instant.
Adding insult to injury, there were complications from surgery that left her with a staph infection that eventually sent her body into septic shock. Within three months of starting treatment at the local children’s hospital, the once-vibrant Kathleen lay unconscious in the ICU.
After receiving her last rites from Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, Kathleen was miraculously discharged, unaware of the trauma her family and friends had experienced. Although now stable, her family made the decision to transfer her care 500 miles from home to Memphis, Tennessee.
As Kathleen re-started treatment at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, she recovered from the shock of how much life had changed in three months. With no cell phone, internet or AIM in 1995, she would periodically hear from friends, who were living their best lives back home without her. Although she was accompanied by her mother (the saint!), Kathleen felt angry, alone, and like no one understood what she was going through.
After another year of chemo and radiation at St. Jude, Kathleen heard the words, “cancer-free.” She couldn’t wait to get back to normal. But what was “normal” for a 14-year-old who had just endured a traumatic and debilitating experience, with no one who could relate?
“Suffering can make you selfish, turn you cruel. It can make you feel like there is nothing but you and your anger, the crackle of exam table paper beneath bruised limbs, the way your heart pounds into your mouth when the doctor enters the room with the latest biopsy results. But I wasn’t the only one whose life had been interrupted by illness; my loved ones all faced a rupture that was similar in kind, if not in degree. That I wasn’t the only one in the room meant I was one of the lucky ones, I knew…I felt guilty about what my illness had done to my family, the pain and stress I was causing everyone, the amount of “space” my body took up with its problems. It was impossible not to feel like a burden.” -Suleika Jaouad, in "Between Two Kingdoms"
Depression was the dark cloud even on the sunniest Chicago days.
Returning home and adjusting to the shift in support was difficult. Kathleen was isolated and lonely, feeling disconnected from family and friends who didn’t quite understand what she endured. She struggled to express her feelings and challenges, and her mental health suffered as a result.
Anxiety and depression set in just as she started at a new school, and her hair started to grow back post-treatment. She endured 15 months of treatment but spent 15 years overcoming the shadows that followed.
Finding purpose and the façade of resiliency.
Kathleen found purpose in sharing her story and fundraising for St. Jude, The V Foundation, and other cancer-related charities, starting as soon as treatment ended (which, in retrospect, was not the best mental health exercise). She served as a patient advocate to hundreds and worked officially on behalf of St. Jude for five years in field event leadership and corporate partnerships.
While appearing to be strong and resilient for the comfort of others, it wasn’t easy to open up about everything she’d been through.
Kathleen was only sharing part of her story. But unfortunately, the pressure to be a beacon of hope for others made it hard to open up about the dark experiences, affecting her ability to process her experiences and heal.
“I’ve found that many of us feel ashamed or guilty for feelings that arise after a cancer diagnosis and don’t always feel comfortable talking about it,” she said. “From survivor’s guilt, grief, fear of recurrence, scanxiety, relationship issues, ghosting, depression, body image issues, digestive issues...all of the things! So I wanted to change the narrative—allow space for it.”
By nature, she has always allowed her pain to guide her purpose and believed that her experience, and the stories shared by so many others, could create a much more positive impact for the cancer community.
Power in sharing: creating buddhi.
During her time at St. Jude, Kathleen realized how much power there is in sharing how you feel so others can connect and support you (you’re not alone, bud). She recognized an opportunity to create a digital platform to reimagine support for everyone coping with cancer--regardless of time, diagnosis, or geography. The power of community, collaboration with cancer organizations and wellness resources, and opening dialogue on otherwise taboo topics provide much-needed support for our mental and emotional health.
Kathleen had the idea for buddhi over the past decade, but it wasn’t until a secondary scare in the Fall of 2018 that Kathleen began working on the business plan. Negative cancer test results in January 2019 were just the starting gun Kathleen needed to go for it.
“The validation from thousands of people who experienced the same pain as I did led me to leave my corporate partnership role at St. Jude to focus on building buddhi full-time in April 2019,” she said.
Kathleen used her years of fundraising experience to raise enough money from investors to start building the platform with a “rag tag team” of developers abroad. But two weeks after launching a beta website late February 2020, the pandemic blew up their year of hard work to make buddhi a reality. Undeterred, Kathleen stayed the course and raised thousands more dollars—but this time to purchase hundreds of face masks and ship to anyone who requested for someone with cancer. Those recipients became the “OG buds,” fueling her commitment when days got (really) hard, and informing topics for content and virtual events.
By late August 2020, she was able to hire a Community Director – her sister, Meagan – and social media manager, Alexis. As the sisters hosted dozens of community events (many of which are available on-demand in our content library!), they worked alongside a content writer to create a library full of topics that were most hot-ly discussed. All this while beta testing the community features – once built – and learning the hard way just how valuable good tech talent is! 🙃
One thing’s for sure: We love our buds and cannot wait to welcome you to our community with open arms!