“Just like when the sun goes behind a cloud, it will come out again.”

Phillip Jeffrey is one of the most active members of both the Terry and greater UBC community. Even before working formally for the Terry Project, I remember seeing Phillip at the TEDx Terry talks conferences in 2009 and 2010, in the background taking fabulous pictures to share with us after the event. He does the same at Africa Awareness events, and many other gatherings at UBC. Always upbeat and smiling, Phillip has a creative spark that many envy. He also has Cancer.

Phillip Jeffrey @ UBC TEDxTerry Talks 2009
Phillip at TEDx Terry talks 2009

It was last Saturday evening when I received an email from a close friend in New York. She told me the story of one of her good friends who despite struggling with advanced Cancer had one of the most positive attitudes of anyone she knew. He was now developing a project, Creators with Cancer, in which he wished to interview and photograph creative people with Cancer working in music, arts, technology and design. I was shocked to follow the link to the fundraising website to see a video of Phillip relaying the same story, HIS story.  Thanks to the magic of Twitter, I got in contact with Phillip and set up a coffee date to talk to him further about his project. I did this for two reasons: I wanted to learn how Phillip was managing to cope and why he decided to open up about living with Cancer after keeping his struggle private over the last five years. I  also wanted to see if Terry could help.

While doing a Masters in Science at UBC in 2006 Phillip was diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma, an extremely rare form of Cancer that involves the plasma cells in the bone marrow producing an abnormal amount of protein. For the most part, Phillip saw specialists, did numerous exams and tests and experimented with various Cancer treatments in private. There were friends, like those in his residence, which knew out of necessity because as an outpatient the hospital required that Phillip be constantly monitored. Other than that, Phillip didn’t see his disease as relevant to who he was or his relationships he had with people, so he didn’t share it.

In 2007/2008 his Cancer levels had dropped down to 12 IgG, but then slowly began to rise and in August 2008 and he began taking powerful medications to lower Cancer levels. Phillip recalls how incredibly difficult it was at that time to finish his Masters degree. The drug’s side effects caused him to experience severe fatigue and concentrating became difficult.

In December 2010, while doing his PhD, Phillip began experiencing severe headaches and hazy vision. Meetings with specialists and a CAT scan revealed that he had a stroke the previous weekend in the area of his brain responsible for vision. He was also diagnosed with TTP-a rare and potentially deadly condition (occurring only 4-5 times a year in British Columbia) where blood cells eat each other. The next 12 days were spent in the hospital where he received treatment for TTP and his current condition was assessed. As doctors were unsure of whether his Cancer treatments caused TTP, he was taken off medication.

Phillip recalls that in the hospital he began to realize how lucky he was to have such supportive and uplifting friends. For many other patients around him that lacked a support system, their challenges dealing with disease seemed significantly greater. After a close friend struggling with Cancer, Derek Miller, shared his very personal and honest struggle with the disease online Phillip began to wonder, “how could I spread awareness to communities at risk about Cancer?” He then made the decision to go public and post his own story on his blog.

Currently, Phillip’s  Cancer levels are high but stable without medication and treatment, an accomplishment that doctors have attributed to his positive attitude. For Phillip, stress can be detrimental to his health and as a result he has spent the last five years harnessing a positive attitude that if most peopled adopted, I believe, could move mountains.

Within minutes of sitting done with Phillip, I was literally in awe of his energy. His excitement about the project he was beginning and the passion he has about profiling ‘Creators with Cancer’ came through in every movement, laugh and word. When I asked him how he manages to cope on the days he is unable to get out of bed, visit with friends, or experiment with photography Phillip surprised me with his honesty and acceptance of his situation. In acknowledging how he feels, Phillip tells himself “okay, I’m sick. But I’m going to stay positive about the next day or moment. The present is only temporary, not forever.” Instead of identifying himself as a sick person with Cancer, Phillip reminds himself that “this is a temporary me, the real me will be back tomorrow. Just like when the sun goes behind a cloud, it will come again.”  Phillip told me how you must will yourself to see the positive in your condition and the strength within yourself to carry on.

Phillip’s project, Creators with Cancer, is an initiative in which he would use the talents that have helped him cope with Cancer to reach out to other Cancer patients across the continent. Using photography and film, Phillip wants to interview individuals struggling with Cancer and profile how their talents and creativity allow them to exist in an identity outside of the disease. In Phillip’s words, he wants to focus “on who people are, not what they have.” For Phillip, this is not just a project he wants to do for himself, but “a legacy of the people who wanted to share their stories…[I’m] hoping to create a supportive network amongst those people that will continue even after I’m gone.”

The full details of the project can be found on the fundraising site and the official website, but I’d like to explain a few things that we believe the Terry community can help with. Phillip not only needs donations (he’s aiming to raise $5000 over the next fifty days for the project and hopes to receive in-kind donations like flights, accommodations ) but is looking to network with knowledgeable people to help make this project a success. For example, he is seeking advice from Cancer organizations or those with related health expertise on how to reach creative people living with cancer and advice on how to be sensitive during these types of interviews. He also welcomes support from interested students, especially those who may be able to connect Phillip with diverse communities and cultures in the Canada or the US.

Our Ask to the Terry community: Over the last year the team and I have been blown away by your commitment to learning and the contributions you have made to both the local and international community, not to mention the diverse talents and skills you bring to UBC. We’re asking you to take a moment to reflect on Phillip and his initiative, and see if you know someone or something that would help him achieve his goal of connecting with creative people who are living with Cancer. If you would like to contact us with questions about the project or a way that you think you can help, contact Phillip at connect@creatorswithcancer.com or leave a comment on this post.

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