Breaks from college aren’t all about relaxing for Chantilly’s Nikki Ferraro.
The James Madison University sophomore often spends her breaks and weekends at home attending board meetings and fundraisers for the nonprofit organization she founded while still in high school.
Bite Me Cancer marked its second full year of operation last week, with Ferraro outlining her goals for 2013, which include raising $50,000 to sponsor a research grant.
The foundation has two focuses: backing thyroid cancer research and providing support to teens who are diagnosed with cancer. Both draw on Ferraro’s experiences.
In April 2010, Ferraro was diagnosed with sporadic medullary thyroid cancer. Despite her parents’ objections, she formed a Relay for Life team two weeks later and raised $5,000 within the first three days, and about $20,000 by the time of the event.
Her relay team had the cheeky name Bite Me Cancer, complete with custom T-shirts and wristbands she used as part of her fundraising.
“I wanted to continue,” Ferraro said.
So she pushed her parents to help her start a nonprofit foundation and continue raising money.
“Eventually, we caved in,” said Nikki’s mother, Sharon Ferraro.
They initially thought it would be a small project to keep their daughter busy, but soon found that their friends and business contacts were happy to help support the cause with pro bono Web design, legal help and other professional services.
Bite Me Cancer, formed in September 2010, has a 15-member board and is involved in several initiatives.
The biggest organization’s goal is to provide support for teenagers who have cancer, support Nikki Ferraro wished she had after she was diagnosed and going through treatments. She found that support services were geared toward adults or young children.
“I got a gift bag when I was diagnosed that had coloring books and other things that I couldn’t benefit from,” she said.
Working with partner organizations, including Inova Health System, Bite Me Cancer provides bags for teens that include items such as a USB drive with Ferraro’s story, an iTunes gift card, playing cards and a water bottle with the Bite Me Cancer logo.
They also have a private Facebook page in which teens can network and get support from others going through similar experiences.
“Being a teenager is hard enough,” Ferraro said, and a cancer diagnosis can be very isolating for teens.
“Teenagers face a lot of issues when they are diagnosed with cancer,” said Holly Senn, a child life specialist at Inova.
In addition to the things that other cancer patients struggle with, it can be hard for teens to miss out on special events such as prom, she said.
Bite Me Cancer is seeking to raise $50,000 to fund a two-year research grant for younger scientists working on thyroid cancer treatments or cures. In 2012, the organization raised more than $20,000 of that goal, in part with the help of business sponsors such as Paisano’s Pizza, a local chain.
From Sept. 18 to Nov. 13, Paisano’s gave $2 from every large pizza sold on Tuesdays to Bite Me Cancer, raising more than $12,700.
“When I first met [Nikki], she was such an inspiration,” Paisano’s owner Fouad Qreitem said. “I was blown away.”
At the Jan. 3 kickoff event, Qreitem pledged to continue supporting Bite Me Cancer this year.
The pizza campaign also had an unexpected effect on Raina Tomlinson, a Fairfax resident and thyroid cancer survivor who said she bottled up her anxiety about her cancer because her doctor treated it as if thyroid cancer was not a big deal. Because thyroid cancer has a higher survival rate than other types of cancer, it is sometimes called “the good cancer.”
When Tomlinson ordered a pizza and saw the flier about the thyroid cancer fundraiser, “something clicked inside my brain,” she said. “The biggest thing is that I learned I wasn’t alone.”
Tomlinson got involved with Bite Me Cancer and now is a member of the group’s advisory committee.
“It’s opened so many doors for me, personally,” she said.