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What I Learned in Austin

Author: Casey Ryan, C’95

Earlier this year, the Penn Club of Austin hosted a kick-off event for South by Southwest, the annual music, film, and interactive conference and festival.  Penn Alumni were invited to LIVESTRONG head quarters to hear from Philippe G. Hills, Executive Vice President for Development and Renee Nicholas, Challenge Director.

Phil and Renee spoke about Lance’s story with his battle with cancer – all before he even won a Tour de France jersey – and the mission of the Lance Armstrong Foundation – to inspire and empower people affected by cancer.  Lance took an active role in educating himself about his disease and underwent aggressive treatment to beat the disease into remission. From this experience, he funneled his work and research on cancer and its treatment into the Lance Armstrong Foundation, LIVESTRONG, in order to provide people affected by cancer, the survivors and their family, with information that they need to continue living with the security that they will be able to access treatment and life has they know it will continue.

Lance’s Seven Yellow Jerseys, one for each Tour de France victory

Renee told her personal story of her involvement with LIVESTRONG.  After losing her father to cancer, she joined her sister in Austin to settle down.  She started to volunteer for LIVESTRONG after hearing a story on the radio about the local Lance Armstrong’s work in cancer support.  Her volunteering led to her being hired as LIVESTRONG’s third employee.  “The sentence, ‘You have cancer,’ is one of the most frightening that you will ever hear,” she said.  Renee then explained how LIVESTRONG’s mission was to provide all the information to a survivor to make decisions for their treatment and well as continuing one’s quality of life after treatment is over.

The wall of all the LIVESTRONG employees

Renee illustrated the work with examples.  Cancer and its treatment can leave a survivor with the need to review current and future financial goals.  Knowing that dealing with financial matters is overwhelming, the organization can help define one’s present financial status, as well as prepare for future needs through planned spending and refocusing of one’s budgets. Chemotherapy can render survivors infertile.  Therefore, the organization developed the Sharing Hope program to connect recently diagnosed cancer patients to discounted fertility preservation options before beginning cancer treatment.  In addition to teaching patients, LIVESTRONG has programs to teach doctors how and what to speak to their patients about in addition to their diagnosis.

A piece from the STAGES exhibition (on loan from Mark Parker, President & CEO of Nike Inc.)

Ten years after she started working with LIVESTRONG, she found herself on the receiving end.  “ ‘You have cancer, ’ my doctor told me,” Renee shared with us.  She, however upset and devastated, didn’t lose hope.  The work that she had been doing for a decade immediately gave her strength.  All the research that she did and the relationships that she forged were going to be at her service to help her survive.  With the resources at LIVESTRONG, she has now been in remission for over three years.

This story instantly affected all of the Penn alumni in the room.  Everyone seemed to exhale at once in awe of Renee’s story.  Some people were wiping their eyes and others were grabbing the tissues on the table.  She is the example of what LIVESTRONG is all about.

Deeply moved, we continued with a tour of the LIVESTRONG facility, including the office space, the event space and the amenities for staff, volunteers, and cancer patients and survivors.  The location in East Austin is a rehabilitated warehouse, and the architects reused most of the original materials to earn a LEED Gold certification for renovations.  The headquarters house several pieces of art from Lance’s private art collection, includes some from STAGES,  LIVESTRONG’s  global, thematic art exhibit aimed at raising worldwide awareness.

At the end of the tour, Phil and Renee brought us back to the boardroom and let us know that any non-profit organization in the greater Austin area can contact LIVESTRONG to use their faculty outside of business hours to hold meetings and to host events since the foundation feels that it is its responsible to help other non-profits success when resources are scarce and meeting space is at a high premium.

The East Austin neighborhood

The evening ended with many people thanking Phil, Renee, and David Hanson, our Penn alumnus who worked with LIVESTRONG to make this event happen.  Several of the alumni attending the event went out of their way to note their appreciation of the access to LIVESTRONG and to express their gratitude to Renee for sharing her story.

A parking lot of food trucks in East Austin

I am always amazed at how connected our alumni are in the world.  Without a Penn alumnus volunteering to host an event for his fellow alumni on the eve of one of the biggest music, media, and film conferences and festivals in the world, we wouldn’t have shared in this wonderful tale of triumph.  Personally, I am grateful beyond words.

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