Ideas

Lighting the Way for Blood Cancer Cures

By Julie Wellik, Peggy Robinson on October 25, 2018

When Matt Clear was diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma, the news hit the HKS Orlando office like a lightning bolt. His blood cancer has no cure, and he was reluctant to talk about it the year following his diagnosis in 2011.

“I wasn’t sure how the news would be received or how it might impact our staff, client relationships and our business,” said Clear, who as HKS Southeast Regional Director is based in Orlando.

But Clear decided to slowly begin sharing his diagnosis, and the collective reaction by his HKS Orlando colleagues and clients was incredibly supportive. “The positive response gave us permission to wear the cause on our sleeve,” he says.

Yet lightning struck our office a second time in November 2017 when another HKS Orlando colleague, Shanna Hanson, learned that her 17-year old daughter, Rileigh, had Stage 2 Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.

Rileigh was entering her junior year in high school and went to the doctor for a routine athletic team physical for water polo.

“Her cancer was completely asymptomatic. The physical turned up largened lymph nodes, and a CT scan the day before Thanksgiving revealed Rileigh had Hodgkin’s,” says Hanson, director of Corporate Interiors. “I called Matt in a panic. He reassured me the best he could. Just knowing all he’s gone through and watching him gracefully navigate his treatment was comforting.”

HKS Orlando began helping raise awareness and money to support Matt – and now, we’re supporting Rileigh too – and thousands of others fighting blood cancers in our community.

Since 2012, HKS Orlando and the HKS Southeast Region has raised more than $150,000 for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS) of Northern and Central Florida. We take part each fall in LLS’ Light the Night Walk fundraiser, which coincides with HKS’ annual Month of Service, giving us more motivation to reach our fundraising goal.

Three years ago, to breathe new energy into our annual LLS support, HKS Orlando launched a “friendly” chili cook-off competition. Each team must pay a minimum of $500 to participate and teams that raise $800 or more can enter two chilis. The cook-off fits perfectly with the fall season and presents an opportunity to incorporate clients into the festivities by inviting them to serve as celebrity judges. Prizes are awarded for the judges’ favorite chili – the “People’s Choice” award winner – and for the top fundraising team as well.

Our fundraising impact increased measurably in 2017 when our colleagues throughout the HKS Southeast Region began participating in the annual event, which included HKS offices in Miami, Tampa and Atlanta. Each holds a preliminary cook-off in their own office, and then ships their winning chilis – and chefs – overnight to Orlando for the final judging.

As you can imagine, the Chili Cook-Off has grown into some serious and competitive fun. The trash talking between teams and offices gets quite creative, as do the team names and their recipes. Last year we even had a chili recipe go “missing” off the photo copier glass – the thieves were unfortunately not apprehended. Folks come to win, but it’s all in good fun for a common goal.

Every year, the Chili Cook-Off and Light the Night Walk draw us closer together as an office and a region. At last year’s Chili Cook-Off, one of our celebrity judges, David Wiggins, interim director of the Northern and Central Florida Chapter of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, shared with us that $.74 of every $1.00 donated to LLS goes directly to research, copays, and travel assistance for patients who seek treatment away from home.

According to Wiggins, in 2017 more than $1.5 million went directly into covering these costs for people in Northern and Central Florida, including Matt Clear and Rileigh Hanson.

“The new regimens and therapies used during my treatment five years ago are now being used on solid tumor patients,” says Clear. And Hanson notes that LLS helped push through an experimental targeted immunotherapy drug that her daughter’s oncologists used as part of her intensive four-month chemotherapy.

“Rileigh lost her hair after the first treatment, and she missed six months of school. But she’s back for her senior year, thinking about college and as of her last scan, is showing no signs of cancer,” says Hanson.

Both Clear and Hanson describe their cancer experiences with a profound sense of humility and gratitude, in part due to a path illuminated by their extended HKS family.

Clear recalled a procedure at the beginning of his journey – four cycles of treatment followed by a bone marrow transplant that required three weeks in isolation. “The office sent video messages of staff saying, ‘Good morning, Matt.’ It galvanized our office while making me feel connected and frankly, just normal. You never think you have an impact on people until you experience something like that. It’s extremely rewarding to walk through life with this group.”

Hanson says her team created a flexible arrangement that ensured she could be present for Rileigh’s treatments while maintaining her presence at work. “It allowed me to focus on Rileigh and getting her healed, and on my other kids at home.

“They lifted a huge burden by saying, ‘I got you, don’t worry.’ In cancer world, there is a hashtag phrase, #NoOneFightsAlone,” says Hanson. “HKS has certainly provided the love and support that backs up that hashtag.”

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