November 15, 2001

Illness Survivors Come Together for Comfort

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For Cornellians facing serious illness, the Survivor logo from the CBS reality show represents more than 15 minutes of fame. Here, the life is at stake rather than first place.

Cornell Student SURVIVORS of Serious Illness (SSSI) is an, “on-campus network of students who have faced, or are facing, serious illness,” said Tamar Yael Melen ’03, founder of the group. Melen herself was diagnosed with cancer two years ago.

“It literally came out of nowhere. One day I had a pain in my chest, and it turned out to be a tumor,” she said.

The idea to start this organization came to Melen after she had recovered and returned to school.

“Everyone else was worried about prelims, everyone was normal, and I am not [normal] anymore,” said Melen, who had difficulty adjusting to her the changes in her life. “Lots of confusion about reintegrating myself in the Cornell society.”

“I wanted to join people who knew what I was going through. As I looked around campus, I went to Gannett, but they didn’t have anything that seemed like this [kind of organization],” said Melen.

Using the Survivor logo, she encouraged students to come to the meeting. “We’re technically not survivors because it’s [cancer] not gone yet. Some people say from the minute you are diagnosed, you are a survivor,” said Melen.

The Purpose of SSSI is to promote activism, and to provide peer support, information, advocacy and activism. The group welcomes students who have faced, or are facing, serious illness or who are looking for the opportunity to connect with other students with similar experiences. They can also help expand and improve the support network at Cornell, educate the community, and reach out through volunteering and community service.

Five students attended the group’s first meeting on Wednesday night. In the midst of sharing their experiences, they also chatted classes and endless prelims.

A student survivor who was diagnosed with cancer three years ago, Janine Petrvovits ’05, shared her story. She identified herself as an average girl at first glance who likes music and swimming. However, three years ago she received a disheartening diagnosis.

“I was diagnosed with Leukemia. I went through radiology and lost my hair three times,” said Petrvovits.

Group members Jonathan Kvon ’05 and Becky Chase ’05 are both diabetic. “I’m your basic engineer from Queens, but last year I was diagnosed with diabetes type I” said Kvon.

Chase was diagnosed at the age of ten. “You have to deal with it all the time,” she said.

Vasanth Sriram ’04 had a biopsy taken from a lump on his neck last January.

“I had to get a needle biopsy done, and by Easter break it came out positive for cancer” said Sriram. Although he had surgery done, Sriram still faces further tests for another tumor.

The stories of dealing with serious illness and survival were freely shared between those at the meeting.

B.B. Chamberlain ’05, had cancer when she was four years old.

“I still remember the smell of anesthesia,” said Chamberlain.

Through all the stories of survival, coping and inspiration, the Survivors maintained their senses of humor.

Keeping the group relaxed was one of Melen’s goals. S

he said, “with everything that we do, I want you guys to feel comfortable. The involvement is up to you.”

Melen added, “I wanted to keep it a student motivated and ran group.”

The group is funded by the Public Service center located in Barnes Hall. Melen plans to set up a resource library.

As she found through her personal experience, reading books such as Time on Fire by Evan Handler, were helpful.

“The things he was saying, I felt like I was saying them myself” added Melen.

Her vision of the library involves all sorts of books and other research materials, as well as referral files for campus and community agencies.

“Cornell is a big place, its easy to get lost, and it’d be good to have people be aware of place [to go to for support] in the Ithaca community” said Melen.

During the meeting, brainstorming ideas for fundraisers and volunteering were introduced.

Programs such as the Card Program fundraiser (in which patients and volunteers make cards to sell for fundraisng purposes), or the blood drives were discussed, as well volunteering at Ithaca’s cancer society’s headquarters.

“We took a big step tonight, by just meeting. There are more people, it’s not just us,” said Melen, “Its time to move from the theoretical, and calling agencies and [to] establish time for meetings.”

Archived article by Veronika Belenkaya