Regardless of age, facing a cancer diagnosis is a scary thing for anyone.
At first, the grim news is met with disbelief and sadness, followed by wonder of how the illness came about, questions about the prognosis, anxiety about treatments and fear of the future.
Early on, cancer patients often receive a flood of support from family and friends in the form of get-well cards, flowers and food baskets. But over time, many face a growing sense of depression, anger and isolation.
Those fortunate to survive cancer undoubtedly feel relieved to have a second chance at life. But regardless of how long remission lasts, cancer survivors carry on with more than surgical scars.
While the body may be on the mend, survivors face a new challenge — battling mental and emotional struggles.
For Riverside native Kathleen Brown, the above is all too familiar and the inspiration for Buddhi — a free, digital platform for adults living with and recovering from cancer.
Buddhi (pronounced “buddy”) features curated content, discussions and virtual events, all with the goal of inviting friends and family to invest in holistic healing through a socially-responsible e-commerce marketplace.
In the years she’s survived cancer, Brown says nearly all other cancer patients she talks with share the same problem — fear of opening up about mental struggles and finding a true sense of both emotional support and outlets for holistic wellbeing.
“You live with the fear of recurrence, and if you don’t have the tools to cope with that or figure out when you start freaking out every time you’re waiting for results, it’ll eat you alive,” she said.
Twenty-five years ago at age 13, Brown was like any other junior high student. An active student at Hauser Junior High School with a slew of friends, the energetic teen could never have expected how her life would change following a routine school physical.
When Brown’s doctor noticed a small bump on her back — thinking at first it may have developed from frequent hits against the high-jump bar during track and field practices — Brown and her family sought out second opinions just to be sure.
She eventually underwent surgery, where it was discovered the bump was actually a massive cancer tumor.
The diagnosis? Ewing sarcoma, a rare type of cancer which occurs in the bones or soft tissue around bones. While it can occur at any age, Ewing sarcoma is most common in children and teens.
At first, Brown was treated in Chicago. But after developing a staph infection, her prognosis was bleak and her medical team and family determined it would be best to transfer her to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, the renowned pediatric cancer and disease hospital in Memphis, Tennessee.
Prior to receiving treatment at St. Jude’s, Brown was even administered last rites from the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, the archbishop of Chicago who himself was battling cancer.
The same year, Valerie Kunz, the late longtime local newspaper columnist from Riverside, wrote a feature story on Brown, resulting in an abundance of moral support from both Riversiders and others.
One year and three months after rounds of chemotherapy and radiation treatments, Brown was successfully treated and declared cancer-free.
According to Brown, her tumor was never staged, so she doesn’t know how advanced her Ewing sarcoma was. She says there truly is no medical explanation other than a miracle for why she stabilized.
“It was really sunshine and rainbows after St. Jude, for all intents and purposes,” Brown said. “They covered the cost of treatment, we had the best possible medical care and treated us like we were family, and it was really great.”
Though in remission, returning to normal life for Brown was no walk in the park.
While in her freshman year at Fenwick High School, Brown was finishing her two final cancer treatments. While she says she had nice classmates, Brown was unsure of how others would receive her if she told them about her cancer.
“What I realized post-treatment, that I never really felt comfortable talking about, was all the mental health effects,” she said. “I was somehow a very high-functioning, very depressed person.”
It wasn’t until her wig fell off while making a play during a softball game that she began opening up a bit and telling peers the truth about what she was going through.
“Certainly I talked about the fact that I was finishing treatment, but I wasn’t talking about the dark stuff at all,” she said. “I was surrounded by more love and support than you can imagine. Everyone in Riverside and surrounding communities were showering me with cards and teddy bears and gift baskets and all these things that were very heartwarming.”
But every time Brown was asked by someone how she was doing, she hated how it made her feel pitied.
“I hear that it’s very common people don’t want to complain; they don’t want to express that kind of dark stuff because they already feel different,” she explained. “For me, I felt like if I expressed that stuff, it would feel like a slap in the face to all these people that were caring about me.”
With no in-person or virtual support networks for cancer patients in the late 1990s, Brown says she felt completely isolated.
Though she became a part of other cancer wellness support groups years later as an adult, Brown’s biggest wakeup call came in 2019 while speaking with others about the lasting effects of her cancer treatments — and awaiting the results from a secondary cancer scare.
“A lot of cancer survivors or anyone post-diagnosis have long-term issues,” she said. “The chemo and radiation wreaks havoc on your body. You’re kind of given discharge instructions to check back in with your doctor every so often, but you don’t really know what’s normal and what’s not normal as you start to heal.”
Even despite working in partnership and development roles with St. Jude, she discovered a greater need to bridge the divide between social support and mental healing.
“What if there were some way, instead of friction and disconnection between the supporter and the patient, we could reduce that and create a tool that actually helps patients and supporters understand what the other is going through?” Brown asked herself.
Buddhi — a Sanskrit word which means to be awake, understand, and to know — was named for its purpose of serving as a platform for all-around healing of the mind, body and soul of those afflicted by cancer.
“I really wanted the name to be emblematic of what [the platform] is, and we’re taking a sort of Eastern-healing approach to connect friends and family and work through the healing process,” Brown said.
A peer-to-peer cancer support group, Brown’s goal is for Buddhi to serve as a way for patients and caregivers to authentically express what they’re feeling and going through in a conversational, non-clinical fashion.
Users on the platform are able to talk in forum spaces about everything from how their most recent appointments went, to sharing thoughts on their current feelings and even where the best places for massages and healthy foods are.
With a small team for software development and web design, Buddhi officially launched in February 2020, right before the coronavirus pandemic swept through the U.S.
While there is currently a waitlist for more users, Brown anticipates inviting everyone to join within the next few weeks, especially as Buddhi is looking to launch its app later this year.
“The community and power of social support is so vital,” Brown said. “People showing up and bringing meals and sending love — I can’t imagine how much harder my journey would have been without that support.
“It’s just become such a labor of love,” she added. “The more you open up and talk about your struggles, there’s so many people that are like, ‘me too.’ It’s been a very fulfilling journey and we’re just getting started. Hopefully we can make a much bigger impact.”
For more information about buddhi, visit hibuddhi.com.