With cancer diagnoses affecting generations of her family, Mackenzie Whalen has been part of a support system for loved ones as they battle the deadly disease for as long as she can remember.
“Cancer has affected my life a lot,” said Mackenzie, 13, of North Huntingdon Township.
“Have you — or even someone you know — had cancer? Many people think they are alone during their battle. They’re not.”
At 5, Mackenzie said goodbye to her day care provider Mary Brush, who died as a result of cancer.
As she faced that tragedy, her father, Jim Whalen Jr., was battling lymphoma. He survived and, a few years later, was diagnosed with cancer in his kidneys. He is cancer-free today.
Mackenzie’s grandfather Jim Whalen Sr. survived a diagnosis of mouth cancer. Her mother, Penny Whalen, found early signs of skin cancer that were removed successfully last year.
The uncertainty that comes along with cancer’s timeline of diagnosis, treatment and remission is stressful not only for the patient, but for their loved ones, Mackenzie explained. For some that uncertainty manifests in fear, and for others, in hope.
With a new project she calls “Hope, Love and Cure,” Mackenzie wants cancer survivors and caregivers to have an outlet for those emotions. She is compiling a collection of letters, short stories, poems and visual artwork from individuals who have overcome cancer, loved ones who have helped them through it and folks who want the memories of those who lost their battles with cancer to live on.
The finished product, for which Mackenzie is seeking a publisher, will be part of Mackenzie’s pursuit of a Girl Scout Silver Award.
While she is responsible for soliciting entries and finding a means to publish the book, she is working alongside adviser Leigh Ann George of the American Cancer Society.
As a former liaison to the Relay For Life of Norwin, George has felt like an extended member of the Whalen family for years. They’ve bonded through volunteer activities and their experiences with cancer.
“It’s a tough dynamic when someone in your family has cancer,” George said. “Everybody in the family becomes a caregiver, and they might be afraid to share their feelings. They might be scared; they might be angry; but they might feel they have to play a happy role.”
Penny Whalen said Mackenzie has grown emotionally as she related to others who’ve had similar life experiences.
“It’s a very unique experience watching your child grow wings,” she said. “Watching her first speech at Relay, she was all worked up and nervous. By the second time she did it, she was comfortable. She knew what she wanted to say.”
Understanding that people aren’t always comfortable sharing their emotions, Mackenzie said the book might be a more controlled way for someone to tell his or her story without speaking in public.
“They can write it down or draw a picture. Everybody interprets things differently,” she said.
“They can be open about how they felt.”
She is seeking entries from Relay participants across the region and reached out to the White Oak-based Jamie’s Dream Team, which grants dream experiences to individuals diagnosed with terminal diseases.
“For Mackenzie’s whole life, everyone around her has had cancer,” the organization’s founder, Jamie Holmes, said.
“This is her way of giving back. She wants to give people a chance to share their experiences.”
To submit an entry for “Hope, Love and Cure,” email email@example.com or call (724) 516-0608. Entry forms are available online at www.jamiesdreamteam.org under the “Mackenzie’s Dream” tab.
The deadline is April 15. Submissions may remain anonymous in print, as long as a release form is signed.