Cancer fund lets patients get away

Blood cancer survivor gives other patients the vacation she needed


Nora Earnest couldn't look at her bedsheets without her stomach turning.

She was diagnosed with cancer in 2008 at age 32, the beginning of a three-year back-and-forth between treatment and relapse. After about nine months of her first round of treatment, she needed to get away.

“A lot of people with cancer treatment want to acknowledge the end (of it) by celebrating, going and doing something,” said Earnest, who dealt with Hodgkin lymphoma until 2011. Her family decided on a trip. "I (had) rested so much that seeing my bedsheets or pill bottle made me sick to my stomach.”

The Earnests spent a week in the mountains to get away from the stress. It was the first time in a year that Earnest didn't see those triggers of her treatment regimen,and she was able to reconnect with her family.

“When we were packing to return (home), I got really emotional to come home because ... I realized this was the first week my family didn't talk about cancer, the next scan ... who's taking me to the next appointment,” said Earnest, a Centennial resident. A “few years later, when I was still fighting ... I realized I need to do this for other parents with cancer.”

So she and her husband, Randy, started The Earnest Scholarship Fund, which partners with the nonprofit Porter Hospital Foundation to raise money for families to take a break together. Since its start in 2011, the fund has helped 16 families, most from the Denver metro area.

For Earnest, the battle to recovery was steep. She relapsed in 2010 after her trip, achieved remission after a stem cell transplant and then relapsed again in 2011. An anonymous donor provided her the chance to have a second stem cell transplant in August 2011, and she's been been cancer-free since.

“I've had lung scarring, some breast scarring, some (effects) to the heart. But," Earnest, now 41, said, smiling, "I'm still alive."

She has turned her focus outward, helping families in tandem with the Domus Pacis Family Respite program, which connects them with housing in several Colorado mountain areas — Breckenridge and Keystone among them — and also making connections with families through the Kids Alive program. That Porter Hospital Foundation effort brings together children whose parents have cancer to help them have fun with each other and express the difficult feelings they have.

“We've had people use our gift to go horseback riding or rent bikes around” Dillon Reservoir, Earnest said.

In one family, a father had a leukemia diagnosis, and he, his wife and two children went to stay outside of Breckenridge. The wife's thank-you letter afterward stuck with Earnest.

"She said that thanks to the gift of the Earnest fund, they were able to go and enjoy (skiing) as a family,” Earnest said. “They said it was the 'heart and soul' of their winters” before the cancer struck, and that they experienced that magic again there.

The father relapsed after that, but the wife said the family decided to define themselves by their positive experiences in life, and their mountain experience was among their best, Earnest said.

“I was really able to relate to that letter because I've walked in those shoes,” Earnest said.

Earnest's fund was initially solely supported by friends and family. Today, some donations come from patients and their relatives who want to give back. She writes a group letter and sends it to people she's connected with who have been affected by cancer.

The fund has provided about $8,000 to families so far, said Laura Fitch, chief development officer at Porter Adventist Hospital, who oversees the fund with Earnest.

“She's just a very sweet, warm, intelligent woman,” Fitch said. “The passion she has ... I was just so excited.”

All Earnest asks of recipients is that they let her know how they use the money.

“I have had the opportunity to meet in person several of our recipients, and I so enjoy the stories of what they're able to do as a family,” Earnest said. It's “been affirming — like 'Hey, I'm doing the right thing here,' you know.”

Earnest still sees medical specialists often to stay healthy,and she looks back on her journey with appreciation.

“I can never go back to pre-cancer Nora because cancer has so changed really every fiber in my being,” Earnest said. “It's changed my life's purpose.”


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