Peoria Journal Star

February 14, 2004

by Terry Bibo

Fighting a long-term illness can be tough when the cards stop coming.

People start strong. They send letters, make calls, wire flowers, buy gifts. But everybody's busy. Over time, the well-meaning attention drops off. When you're ailing, or watching someone who is, it hurts.

 

Sandy Valentine has seen it, heard about it, been there herself. Her daughter Laura fought several rounds with cancer before she died last month. Their wide circuit of friends and family is pretty attentive … but the kid in the next room wasn't always so lucky.

When Laura's cancer returned, Sandy decided to get ahead of the game so Laura would have every possible support. She got online and discovered ChemoAngels.com.

"What they do is, they adopt patients, any age, who have cancer," Sandy says.

A California woman named Laura Armstrong started the group several years ago. She'd met a woman with breast cancer and began sending cards and small gifts. When treatments were over, the woman thanked Armstrong and referred to her as a "chemo angel." Now ChemoAngels.com has 501(c)3 not-for-profit status, offers its own merchandise and includes branches for senior citizens and missionaries.

It started in 2000 "with two people and an idea," says 35-year-old Amy Toohill of DeWitt. Since then, it has grown tremendously. 

If you're interested, ChemoAngels.com offers several options and can be reached at that location online. You can hook in for support. Or you can help support someone else.

A traditional Chemo Angel agrees to send cards, small gifts and uplifting notes throughout a person's treatment for cancer, although you can also opt to be a Card Angel. You must be at least 25 years old and financially and physically able to keep that commitment. You don't want to drop the ball on someone who is already having a tough time.

You expect no response. (Many patients don't have the energy.) And you do not discuss your own problems. The idea is straightforward encouragement.

"Not 'Get Well.' Not "I'm sorry you've got cancer boo hoo'," Sandy says, adding that it doesn't take a lot of creativity to write "Thinking of you."

"The idea is to encourage the patient and make them feel good," she says "They just sit back and enjoy the mail."

In her experience, it works. For Valentine's Day 2002, Laura received 4,000 cards. That's a natural, given her name, but there's more. For her 16th birthday last summer, she got 800 pieces of mail, including presents and jewelry. That's because the Chemo Angels group also funnels support into gifts and "special assignments."

"There's so many generous, wonderful people in this world," Sandy says, remembering Laura's delight.

Without her daughter, about the time the sympathy cards are trickling to a halt, Sandy Valentine is extra-sensitive to the difference such gestures can make. So she's happy to "angel" a few people herself. She's been a ChemoAngel for three women - all breast cancer patients, all survivors. She estimates it costs about $25 a month … but she spent $50 on Valentines just the other day.

"We're here to make them happy," Sandy says. "That's all it's for."