First person: Celebrating being ‘Closer to Free’
Chances are that if you live in southern Connecticut, you have seen the commercials: Last year’s featured a singing and dancing flash mob at New Haven Union Station; this year’s shows a celebratory group painting a large, colorful mural on a brick wall. In both a band sings, “Everybody wants to be closer to free.”
I had the opportunity to take part in the filming of the newest Closer to Free commercial for Smilow Cancer Hospital, and it was an inspirational experience.
In October of 2013, a group of survivors came together to demonstrate their triumph in the fight against cancer. The message was clear in every interaction: We are strong, especially as a group, and there is hope.
The television advertisements aired during the Grammy Awards, and they will run continuously for a year.
On the first day of shooting, I didn’t know what to expect but was greeted by friendly faces and immediately knew this was going to be something special.
When the group met for the first time, we all introduced ourselves and talked openly about what kind of cancer we had, bonding over shared practitioners and discussing our individual treatments. We also made it a point to say how long we had been cancer-free, even if the answer was only months.
Listening to others tell their stories about the things they had endured — from doctors giving a grim prognosis to chemotherapy, radiation, hair loss, and receiving more bad news — I initially felt like an imposter. I hadn’t physically been through what most of these people had. I was diagnosed with stage one melanoma five years ago. It was caught early, so my treatment consisted of non-invasive surgery and some follow-up scans.
It soon became obvious this group was not at all focused on measuring our differences but rather embracing our collective struggle and victory over cancer. One told me, “Hell is relative” and “We are all survivors.” They were just as proud to be standing there with me, as I was to be with them.
I was surrounded by positive energy and excitement. Every single person I talked to was looking forward to creating the mural and video and, by doing so, spreading hope.
On three separate occasions, we gathered to see this project through. The mural itself was designed by an artist and laid out on the wall by professionals. We were able to do some painting, which was filled in later, but mainly our painting was acting.
The final day, a larger group was involved. Doctors, nurses, clinicians, patients, and their families joined in. My mom was there for a dual purpose: to support me and because she is a nurse at Smilow. It was great to see everyone come together.
We added our own painted handprints to the mural and as time came close to wrapping up, survivors were asked to sign their names on a designated part of the wall. Spontaneously, individuals began adding a dash next to their names and indicating the length of time they have been cancer-free, with remarks such as “6 months” and “2 yrs (and counting!!!)” The group cheered as the marker was passed on to the next signer. This was among my favorite moments.
This latest commercial is part of a series of messages. “The Closer to Free campaign is a rallying theme for all of our patients, caregivers, physicians, and staff to work together to bring us closer to a world free of cancer,” explains Dr. Thomas J. Lynch Jr., director of Yale Cancer Center and physician-in-chief of Smilow Cancer Hospital at Yale-New Haven.
“Each day the scientists at Yale Cancer Center work to find new causes, treatments, and cures for cancers,” adds Lynch. “The physicians, nurses, and staff at Smilow Cancer Hospital at Yale-New Haven work together to ensure that all of our patients are provided the personalized treatment they need. I’m proud of the efforts we’ve made, and look forward to sharing more successes as we aim to be Closer to Free.”
Cancer changes you; there is no doubt about that. It especially changes the way you think — it has an immeasurable impact on your life.
When I look back on this experience, I still feel a sense of community. I continue to be motivated by the special individuals who participatied in the filming with me. We share a permanent bond.