Planet Cancer advertises itself as just like Animal Planet, but with less hair. It says it’s the anti-inspiration and assures visitors to its Web site that “in space, no one can hear you puke.”
Heidi Adams, a forty-year-old mother of twins, launched Austin, Texas-based nonprofit Planet Cancer in 2000 in order to provide a supportive community for young adults battling cancer. Irreverent and honest, hilarious and poignant, the nonprofit’s attitude is designed to adhere to the sensibilities of the Beavis and Butthead, John Stewart, South Park generation as it faces life-threatening disease.
Planet Cancer describes its social networking Web site as “MySpace on prednisone.” (Prednisone is a steroid commonly prescribed for cancer patients). The groups include “People who couldn’t have gotten through this without their pets;” “Ostomy peeps;” “Cancer patients who love the NY Yankees;” “The old farts: cancer over 40;” “Gay and cancer;” “Crazy sexy cancer!!” and many more.
Planet Cancer also organizes old-fashioned face-to-face weekend retreats, and connects cancer patients with resources, like companies that will help women freeze their eggs before undergoing chemotherapy.
At age twenty-six, Adams found out she had Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare type of bone cancer. Ewing’s sarcoma is a pediatric cancer, and the doctors decided on a pediatric treatment for her, but in the setting of an adult hospital.
“It’s an isolating and rough place to be,” said Adams. “There’s nothing in your life that can prepare you for being twenty-six and faced with your own mortality. It’s a real challenge.”
Faced with a shocking lack of resources for cancer patients her age, Adams teamed up with a few other Gen-Xers who were also battling cancer. They wrote a funny newsletter for the Dallas hospital where they were being treated, making jokes out of vomit and constipation, and spinning witty tales about doctors and nurses. The hospital’s public relations department did not appreciate their humor.
Adams researched cancer among young adults, and it was hard for her to find concrete data. After much digging, she learned that the 70 percent survival rate for adults between eighteen and forty years old had not kept pace with the improvement in survival rates for children and older adults. Young adults are often under or uninsured, she said, and more likely to receive a delayed diagnosis. Yet cancer is the leading disease killer among the age group.
“It’s ridiculous,” said Adams. “And unacceptable.”
Adams has received considerable attention for providing resources and support for her peers battling cancer. Planet Cancer has received national media coverage, and WebMD recently named Adams a Health Hero for her work. Adams has been able to hire on three full-time staffers, including a development director who works to secure funding from foundations and individuals.
Adams is putting together her second book, which will be published in July. The book plays off the irreverence of Planet Cancer, with insight about important cancer side effects like chemo farts: “They smell bad enough to peel the paint off the walls!”
Humor aside, at its core, Planet Cancer provides support for cancer patients who might otherwise battle loneliness and helplessness while also battling hair loss, nausea, and fear for their lives.
“A member on the forum had just died, and a woman emailed about her,” said Adams. “She’d never met her, but she wrote, ‘Now I know there’s an angel watching over me.’”
Photo courtesy of Planet Cancer