After the battle of her life, Clarksburg woman fights for others

Cancer survivor Meredith McNerney, left, started a fund to help others with cancer, including Faith Jackson, with her mother, Katie.
Cancer survivor Meredith McNerney, left, started a fund to help others with cancer, including Faith Jackson, with her mother, Katie. (2008 Photo By J. Adam Fenster/the Gazette)
By Nesa Nourmohammadi
The Gazette
Thursday, February 18, 2010

For cancer survivor Meredith McNerney, the fight will never stop.

In February 2007, the Clarksburg resident received a diagnosis of Merkel cell carcinoma, a rare form of skin cancer resulting from the growth of Merkel cells in the skin's outer layer. A tumor scarred her face.

Since then, McNerney has worked to raise money for, and awareness of, the battle against cancer. She founded a nonprofit group, A Message of Hope Cancer Fund, in January 2008, almost a year after her diagnosis.

As the group's executive director, McNerney's philanthropic efforts have provided financial assistance to families affected by the disease. She also hopes to help others with her self-published memoir, "Facing Cancer: A Spiritual Journey from Pain to Peace."

"I think the title is a little misleading," McNerney said. "It's really about my Meniere's disease [an abnormality of the inner ear], kidney disease, hope and faith."

The memoir, released in November, goes into depth about the physical challenges McNerney, 33, faced when her cancer was diagnosed. After she underwent rounds of tests, radiation therapy and surgeries, the remains of the tumor left her with scars and disfigurement.

"As a young woman who took pride in her appearance, I was devastated at the thought of what cancer would do to my face," she said. "I began to wonder what I would look like or if I would even recognize myself."

McNerney underwent several reconstructive surgeries to alleviate the scar on the left side of her face. Although she might not look exactly as she did before her diagnosis, she said, she remains positive about her future.

"Today, my scar is 'freeing' from the shallow world we live in," she said. "With a big scar on my face, I am reminded that 'perfection' is my enemy and that my life is better lived because I am more focused on helping others than obsessing about my appearance."

McNerney is three years from her initial diagnosis, a critical point in her journey. Until that point, she had faced a 50 percent chance of the cancer returning, she said, although she "doesn't think about it." Now that she has reached the milestone and the cancer has not returned, she said, her survival rate is 90 to 95 percent.

McNerney, a reading teacher at Highland Elementary School in Silver Spring, said she thought that the medical insurance she and her husband, also a Montgomery County teacher, have would shield them from the financial burden associated with treatment.

Although emerging relatively unscathed in financial terms, McNerney said, others are not so lucky. She founded the foundation to "offer direct financial assistance to families who face the monetary burdens associated with cancer."

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