NOU Editor Cindy Chafin interviews Women Survivors Alliance (WSA) CEO Karen Shayne in recognition of the 5th anniversary of Women Survivors Alliance and National Cancer Survivors Day
Editors note: It hit me as I sat with her waiting for attendees to arrive at the 2017 SURVIVORville planning meeting. Her phone rang, the ring tone heralding the theme song from “Wonder Woman.” This is one real-life wonder woman on a quest to empower women cancer survivors in their cancer journeys. I reflect quite frequently on the many, many occasions I have been in the presence of Karen Shayne and said to myself “what a woman.” That ringing cell phone just reminded me of those many times.
2017 SURVIVORville marks the 4th event and the 5th anniversary of the Women Survivors Alliance whose “signature product” has been SURVIVORville. I already know the story behind Women Survivors Alliance that Karen shares with anyone who asks the questions of “how,” “what,” and “why.” Just ask her and she’ll tell you. Or read about it on the WSA website. But what I wanted to know was what has she learned these past 5 years of this incredible journey and what’s next?
I sat down with this modern-day wonder woman in the world of cancer survivorship and asked her these questions and more.
NOU: Karen, we know the backstory of WSA and how it came to be. But tell us about this 5-year journey. What did you think it would be like for this organization during its first five years? Is it what you would thought it would be, or is it different?
KS: I never imagined the past 5-years would be so hard, yet so rewarding. Survivorship has stepped into the forefront in a much bigger way than I ever thought it would or could. I give that credit to the voices of the survivors themselves and the incredible empowerment movement to look beyond their treatments. The WSA has stayed true to the mission it was founded on, but more voices emerged and more opportunities to hear those voices came about. I don’t believe I was expecting the movement to be so pronounced or powerful. The unexpected blessings from the journey became the extension of the WSA mission in such a beautiful way.
NOU: So what are some the challenges you have had along the way? And how have they shaped the organization as it moves forward?
KS: Oh, that question could require a book! The last five years have allowed widespread sharing the survivors’ stories, but finding the best means of sharing those stories in an ever-changing digital world is challenging. Technology and media are changing daily and keeping up is tough. What worked in 2012 and what works now are dramatically different. A perfect example would be this magazine. We have been through three revisions of the WSA’s online magazine and about to go through a fourth. This is so we can reach more of our mission of empowerment. That has been the greatest gift and greatest hurdle in our mission. But WOW! Have we learned, right?!
NOU: What is the most unexpected thing – positive or maybe not so positive – you have experienced as part of these first five years and why?
KS: Oh my stars! This magazine was the most unexpected positive gift! We hit 1M readers in November. Never did I ever think that would happen, nor did I think the magazine had so much potential in the new digital media world. It’s so much fun to see this gift expand to such a wide outreach, impacting survivorship not only here in the US, but all over the world. Another unexpected gift has been the dedicated and diligent volunteers. They give their time, efforts and energy because they believe in our mission and want to give back to the new survivors following in their footsteps. Those volunteers are the true servants of survivorship. I honestly could not do it without them. As the t-shirt says, I am #blessed!
NOU: Would you do anything different?
KS: Oh Cindy, I am laughing out loud! Honestly, that would be a 12-part series about what I would and could’ve done differently. But one lesson I have learned is sometimes hindsight is our biggest blessing. What I have learned is how to grow from each experience and ultimately do a better job of serving survivors. I am sure there will be many things in the future I will have wished I would’ve done differently, but growth is constant as is learning and change. Sometimes it is incredibly frustrating, but mostly, it is rewarding! Each day I look forward to experience at hand as a lesson for my future effectiveness.
NOU: What has been one of your best memories or experiences you have carrying out the mission of the WSA and interacting with women every day who have experienced cancer in one form or another? What is one memory or experience that has really touched your heart?
KS: Oh, by far the sharing of stores and the opportunity to meet new friends at our events and educational opportunities. One is Heather Hall’s 2nd Act story, Suckers for Survivors, as she fundraised to send more women to SURVIVORville. It was so honest and real – one gal’s bake sale to help her fellow women. It makes me realize, every day, why all the work is worth it. Another favorite experience is the moment the 2nd Act stage show begins. The power in the audience and the energy backstage can’t simply be described in words . Those are the moments that touch my heart and make me realize each day that what we do is so incredibly important to society. We empower survivors to identify and reach their personal best in daily life. We turn their cancer experience from a catastrophe into a catalyst for positive outcomes in our large community of survivor gals, young and old.
NOU: Karen, thank you for ALL that you do for cancer survivors and the inspiration that you bring to cancer survivors and co-survivors everywhere. You are truly the “Wonder Woman” of cancer survivorship! It is such an inspiration working beside you every day and I know from stories and comments I hear from our readers, you are inspiring them as well.