There was a time when Eesha Chona, a rising senior and founder of an online community for children and teens whose loved ones are battling cancer, felt like she was leading a double life.
Chona’s world changed suddenly when her mother was diagnosed with invasive breast cancer a year and a half ago. That’s when she felt like she was leading two separate lives: one at home, the other at school. At home in Saratoga, she dealt with her mother’s diagnosis, surgery and recovery. At school, she pretended everything was fine.
“Life during the months of trying to accept my new reality was awful,” she said. “But I couldn’t complain as I wasn’t the one with breast cancer. I didn’t realize that when a person is diagnosed with cancer, everyone close to them is diagnosed as well.”
Feeling isolated and alone, she turned to her brother (Harker alumnus Aneesh Chona ’13) for support. Several weeks after their mother’s diagnosis, he encouraged and helped her to follow up on an idea she had to support others in her situation by launching a nonprofit organization called Association of Teens Against Cancer (ATAC).
ATAC now offers an online community for children and teens whose loved ones have been diagnosed with cancer. An interactive educational program on the website (www.atacnow.com) helps users understand the various adult cancers and their treatments. The site also contains a directory of hotlines that teenagers can use during a crisis.
Chona stressed that her brother’s help was and is still vital to ATAC’s success. “I turned to him with my initial idea and together [we] advanced it. He mentored and guided me in marketing an organization and launching it. He also oversees the financials of the company, does the accounting to keep track of donations and important financial metrics, and analyzes the overall efficiency of the organization,” she explained, adding that her brother also runs the ATAC Philadelphia office and networks with local nonprofits interested in partnering with them.
In addition to her work on ATAC, Chona participated in AVON’s 39-mile walk for breast cancer awareness; she was later selected to join its national youth crew to help out with the walk. She also has worked extensively with Bay Area Cancer Connections (BCC), a Palo Alto-based nonprofit organization that provides support for cancer patients and their spouses.
At the request of BCC, she authored an online monthly journal, titled “A Teen’s Journey With Her Mother” (http://www.bcconnections.org/author/eesha/), to help incorporate support for children of cancer patients into their program. This summer, she also started her own therapy class at BCC: “Photo Stories: A Hands-On Family Collage Class.”
“My mother and I always bonded through crafting collages together. After she was diagnosed with cancer, the collages I made on my own supported her through her treatment. I felt that since BCC lacked a class involving children, the best class would be one that brings families together,” she said, noting that she hopes to spread the class to other nonprofits in the Bay Area.
Recently, Chona also started working with Shanti, a nonprofit organization that provides financial and emotional support to San Francisco’s most vulnerable women living with life-threatening illnesses. Chona’s involvement with Shanti helped her realize that not everyone diagnosed with cancer has access the proper treatment or care. That realization prompted her to return to her roots in India, home to some of the poorest populations in the world, where breast cancer has become the leading cancer in the country.
“Over the past two years, I’ve raised money through ATAC and have decided to ‘atac’ 11 specific, untapped villages near my parents’ home city. I’ve raised enough money to sponsor two villages to receive breast screening and prostate exams as well as mammograms … basic health care that these men and women would otherwise never obtain,” she said. When BCC found out about Chona’s work in India, the organization offered to further support her cause by donating prosthetics, wigs, scarves and specialized clothing to any individuals who are found to have cancer and need ongoing invasive treatment.
Chona also has partnered with Roko Cancer, a nonprofit based in London for which she recently became an international grand ambassador. Come spring, her role with Roko Cancer will take her to India for an intensive, hands-on experience working in the villages ATAC sponsors. She will assist with patient exams/screenings, as well as meet with the children of patients.
“Not only are we sponsoring villages for cancer screenings, but will also start providing a channel to support ongoing care with supplies for those individuals who are positively diagnosed, which is something they would not have been able to afford due to their vulnerable circumstances,” she said.
Last summer Chona became a local leader with the American Cancer Society (ACS). As the youth rally and engagement lead for ACS’s Silicon Valley chapter, she was responsible for reaching out to Bay Area high schools and providing them with information about ACS and the benefits of teen involvement. In addition, as the Pink Ambassador for all Bay Area high schools, she visited many schools to educate teens about cancer, screening and prevention, as well as ways in which they could reach out and support cancer patients. She was offered this position again for the upcoming year and is looking forward to continuing to educate and empower more teenagers across the Bay Area.
Recognizing Chona’s overall outreach efforts, the nonprofit organization ZERO Breast Cancer nominated her for its “Honor Thy Healer” award. By using her circumstances as a tool to reach out and help others, Chona said she has increased her knowledge, not just about cancer, but also about starting a nonprofit, marketing it, coding a website and updating features.
I addition to its website, ATAC is also on Facebook and Twitter, and soon will be on the App Store with an iPhone App she created called Send a Ribbon. The app enables children to support their loved ones who have cancer by drawing a personalized cancer ribbon and sending it via email with a caring message.
“Hopefully ATAC will broaden its horizons from five nonprofits and hundreds of users to thousands all across the globe, teaching children to not be scared of reality and helping them understand that they have their own community a few computer keys away, consisting of friends who share and care,” said Chona.