Hope and Adventure in India

After surviving cancer, Terri Wingham recharged her life by volunteering abroad

You were happily living the life of a single professional woman in Vancouver when you got sick. Then everything changed in dramatic and unexpected ways. What happened?

It was a colliding of forces: I was diagnosed with aggressive breast cancer when I was 30, I'd been in a relationship that ended around that same time and I didn't want to go back to my old job. I'd never felt so low in my life. I was looking for something big that would catapult me out.

What spurred you to take action?

I read an article that said instead of thinking about what you want to achieve, think about how you want to feel. Well, I wanted to feel inspired. And I thought, what would inspire me? Out of nowhere came this idea of volunteering in Africa . It wasn't something I ever thought I could do, or wanted to do, but I needed to do something that wasn't about me.

You worked for six weeks at a daycare center in South Africa. What was that like?

When you picture international volunteering, you think about saving the world—not cleaning snotty noses. I was surprised by how hard it was and how much I felt like a failure. I couldn't speak their language, and I wasn't a primary school teacher. But I started to realize it wasn't about me being perfect, it was about loving the kids and showing up every day. And the love they showed me was really what healed me.

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That experience led you to create a unique not-for-profit called the Fresh Chapter Alliance Foundation. How did it happen?

After volunteering in Cape Town, I had an opportunity to travel, and I reflected on what I wanted my life to be. I saw Victoria Falls, which was a dream come true, and I thought: a year ago I couldn't get off the couch. I couldn't walk to the corner store because I was so weak. But then I left Africa and came home to Vancouver, and everything was the same—except me. I felt so different. I thought, Do I let this experience fade into memory? Do I go back to a different version of my old life? Or do I start over? I decided to start fresh. I wanted other survivors to feel what I felt.

Your organization takes 12 cancer survivors on an annual volunteer trip to India. You led your first trip in 2013 and you're leading another in March. How do these experiences help people?

Our group in India instantly bonded because they'd all been through cancer, but here they had an experience that wasn't about cancer. It was an opportunity to go outside of their comfort zones. Cancer can shrink your world. You go from believing that you're strong to suddenly facing your mortality. For a lot of people, coming out of that is terrifying: They don't want to leave their doctors or travel away from their families. It's like cancer has put them in a tiny container, but an experience like this gives them a chance to serve others. You learn so much about yourself and the world when you volunteer abroad. You start out so uncomfortable, and you're thinking, "Why did I do this?" and then two weeks later you can't imagine life if you hadn'tdone it. You figure out how to adapt to a different culture and bond with people who are skeptical of you. That's an accomplishment.

Fundraising for your foundation is a challenge. What drives you to keep pursuing your dream?

When you're building something out of nothing, it takes a while for others to see your vision. So yes, I've been living out of a suitcase for two-and-a-half years, and I'm spending my retirement savings—which isn't smart—but if I can make an impact on people's lives, that will translate into funds and make this sustainable. It has to. I just believe so strongly in what this kind of experience does for people. We ran a pilot program in North America in November, and I saw a shift in our participants in just two days—a sense of possibility like, "Maybe I can go on a new adventure or maybe my life can be different."

What is the biggest lesson you've learned from your experiences?

The old story of your life doesn't have to be your future story. You have the power to write the next chapter. The scariest thing in life is to let go of the known, but amazing things are possible if you open yourselves up to them. When you have this burning desire or belief to do something, pay attention to it. You never know where it might lead you.

Photograph courtesy of Terri Wingham

Tags: memoirs

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