If you are going to fight a battle, then you need an army—especially when you are up against a ruthless opponent like blood cancer, which is expected to take an estimated 56,770 lives in the United States this year alone.
Jana Bearden, Senior Vice President of Light The Night at The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS), is an expert at building a strong, motivated army. Every year, she organizes nearly 1 million people at 140 walks across the United States and Canada, all volunteering and walking with one goal in mind—cure blood cancer.
“There are so many people living with blood cancer that need our help,” Bearden said. “There’s so much left to do. That’s what motivates me every year to drive stronger fundraising results; I believe it is going to lead to cures faster.”
For most volunteers and participants, their Light The Night experience is one evening each year. But for Bearden, it’s top of mind 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And while each year brings new challenges, Bearden remains motivated and knows that she’s never alone.
This Is Personal
Before being hired by LLS about three years ago, Bearden was a volunteer with the organization. For her, the fight against blood cancer was personal.
In 2009, her friend Erin was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia. Only 28% of people diagnosed with this blood cancer live five years or longer. Bearden wanted to do something to support her friend, so she ran a half-marathon with LLS’s Team in Training program, raising more than $2,000 in Erin’s honor.
“I called Erin as I crossed the finish line, just to share that minute with her,” Bearden said. “And I’m happy to say that her treatment worked, and she’ll be celebrating ten years in remission this month.”
Now, Bearden’s goal is to help other people living with blood cancer find some hope even when the odds seem stacked against them.
Throughout the year, she works to ensure each of the walks is as inspirational and successful as possible. She remains in constant communication, training and planning with the local teams across the country and even holds mock walks to give regional staffers an example for their events.
The goal is for participants to have a similar experience at each event, including the opening ceremony, the survivor’s circle and the white, gold and red lanterns representing survivors, supporters and those who have lost a loved one to cancer, respectively.
“We want to ensure that those 1 million participants who come to Light The Night are going to have a great time and fall in love with the experience,” Bearden said. “But even more so, we want them to fall in love with LLS and become lifelong supporters of the organization and its mission.”
So many people are living with blood cancer and need our help. There’s so much left to do.
The Most Important Volunteers
Without a doubt, Bearden knows that she cannot lead Light The Night alone. She relies on her volunteers across the country and, most importantly, on the Corporate Walk Chair for each walk, who raises funds and garners support through their business and community relationships.
“When the Corporate Walk Chair is truly passionate about curing blood cancers, that passion permeates to every volunteer at that event,” Bearden said.
A prime example of that passion can be found in Thomas J. Doll, President and CEO of Subaru of America, who is serving as this year’s Corporate Walk Chair for the South New Jersey Chapter. Like Bearden, Doll’s devotion is personal—Subaru lost their Vice President of Human Resources to cancer just two years ago.
“Many of our employees, our family members and other people we know also have had cancer,” Doll said. “So fundraising for LLS is just part of our Subaru culture of giving back to the communities where we live and work.”
Four years ago, Subaru began partnering with LLS to deliver thousands of blankets and arts and crafts kits to people fighting blood cancer across the country. But after attending the Light The Night walk in Philadelphia last year, Doll was so moved that he wanted to get more involved and bring that experience to his community.
This year, the Subaru corporate team has a goal of raising $1 million for LLS. To get there, they are bringing their retailers, suppliers and vendors on board. Doll is trying to galvanize the entire South Jersey community around LLS’ fight against blood cancer.
“We want this year to be epic,” he said. “We want to raise the most money and set the standard for future walks in South Jersey.”
The Future Fight
Likewise, Bearden is thinking about the future of blood cancer and how the funds she raises today through the Light The Night program will one day lead to a cure. This year, as LLS celebrates its 70th anniversary, she knows that one of its exceptional achievements has been helping advance 34 of the 39 blood cancer treatment indications approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2017 and 2018.
But she also recognizes that inspiring the next generation of advocates is crucial. So last year, she took her 9-year-old son, Jake, to their local Light The Night walk in Atlanta.
There, Jake made a friend in another boy about his age. The two threw a football back and forth. They laughed and had fun together. About a half-hour later, they went their separate ways.
Later that evening, during the opening ceremonies, the survivors were invited into a central area to light their white lanterns. Jake saw the boy he had been playing football with and with tears in his eyes, he asked his mother if his new friend had cancer.
“All I could say was, ‘Yes, baby. But he survived. And that’s why we do what we do,'” Bearden recalled. “Seeing it click with my child—that understanding of the hope that we at LLS are bringing to patients and their families daily—that was a special moment. I will never forget it.”
To learn more about LLS and Light The Night, read “Light The Night Helps Lead the Way for Blood Cancer Research.”