The Reluctant Changemaker

Confession: I didn’t go to business school. I am not one of those people who always knew they would run their own business. Honestly, I’ve never been a trailblazer. My mother-in-law is a perfect example of a trailblazer, aka rulebreaker. To her, a recipe is a challenge. She reads it and then absolutely must make some kind of change to it (she’ll deny this when she reads it, but it’s true). She literally cannot not make a change, like use an ingredient she prefers or leave out another that she thinks superfluous, or fiddle with how long the recipe-writer suggested it ought to bake. This isn’t me. I’m happy to follow someone else’s lead.

When I was in college, I got my first journalism gig working at the University of California Santa Cruz newspaper, City on a Hill. My first assignment was to tell the story, in 2000 words, of some of the local fishermen (and women) in our seaside community. I did my legwork and filled a notebook with interviews, research, and observations. When I sat down to write, I knew what I wanted to say, but I was anxious to do well and daunted by the length of the piece. So I procrastinated. I flipped through some back issues of City on a Hill until I found a story I especially liked. Then I had an idea.

Using that story, I made a sort of roadmap: that story began by describing the scene, dropping the reader right into the action at the heart of the piece. So I wrote that down: “start with painting the scene/action.” Next, I noticed the author quoted a central character, so I wrote that down: “insert quote here by main character.” In this way, I methodically created a sort of paint-by-numbers version of a newspaper article for myself modeled after a piece I thought was pretty good. Once I had the map, I slotted in the info, tweaked a bit, and sent it off to my editor. It worked! He liked it, and I even landed the cover that week.

Later, I did a version of this at a paying job. I was hired as a conference producer for a firm that put together monthly two-day events for finance executives. I was hired because of my writing and research skills; I had no background in hedge funds, derivatives, college savings plans – all the high-brow themes I was expected to create events around. I felt like a fish out of water. So I looked around at the other conference producers and picked the one that had been at it the longest in our office.

She had no finance degree and yet every event she did sold out. She would be my roadmap. What Laura did, I would do, even if I didn’t necessarily understand it at first. By studying Laura, I discovered conference producing is less about knowing your topic and more about finding the folks who do know the topic. Laura was good because her network was good. She was a dogged researcher. Once she had her list of names – the people who would become the speakers at her event — she got them to not only agree to speak at her event, but they also helped her create an agenda that anyone in the industry would want to attend. So that’s what I did. My mantra became What Would Laura Do? For 12 years I was a really good conference producer on topics that I knew very little about personally.

As it happened, I got breast cancer while working as a conference producer. I worked all through treatment but eventually I left because I discovered I was no longer the kind of person who could spend huge chunks of my waking hours each day putting together two-day events on topics about which I knew or cared very little. As I began to fashion my life-after-diagnosis, I went back to my roots: I started looking around for someone to emulate. Where were the ones hitting survivorship out of the park? I needed the stories and images of others in their 20s, 30s, 40s living life after diagnosis but I couldn’t find them. For a girl who loves a good roadmap/recipe/sherpa, this was terrifying.

I knew I was desperate for a resource. I envisioned a beautiful, glossy magazine full of these women. I just didn’t know I was going to have to be the one to create it. But when I couldn’t find it out there, that’s what I did. I’ve had to finally become comfortable being the one to pave this particular path, and thus, WILDFIRE Magazine was born.

As it turns out, there are many breast cancer survivors turned entrepreneurs in our community. It is wonderful that we are creating the resources we need and, in fact, it’s better than people and corporations who haven’t faced breast cancer trying to guess our needs. A friend and WILDFIRE contributor put it this way on her blog recently, “The best resources for […] cancer patients are those that the people within the community create. Those who have been through the experience know best how to support those that are entering it now. While no two experiences are exactly alike, the ability to say ‘I know how you feel, I’ve been there too,’ is invaluable. For those of us who notice a gap, we figure out how to fill it.” (No Half Measures: “The Violence of Cancer,” January 9, 2020, Abigail Johnston.)

My hat goes off to the woman who got breast cancer and then decided to stay and work to create a better environment for those diagnosed after her. Maybe that’s you, maybe you’re hard at work creating a resource for our community, or maybe you have some ideas but haven’t put them into motion yet. 

Or, perhaps, like me, you don’t see yourself as a trailblazer per se. Or you worry you don’t have big enough ideas or large enough resources.  Let me assure you, change need not be huge. Yes, we have within our community some women doing massive work, but don’t let that daunt you. We need all different shades of changemakers in our community. No one service or person can do it all. The main thing is that your advocacy be personal to you. Maybe you like to throw parties – could a fundraiser or retreat be in your future? Perhaps you love to sew – how about sewing lavender eyepillows for your cancer center? Love to speak? You could begin by sharing our story at your local Elk’s Club. Want to start a blog? Great! There is no one way to be a changemaker. As frustrating as that might be to someone who loves a good roadmap, it can also be incredibly freeing to know that whatever you choose to do is enough.

Even the smallest acts can have big vibrations. To paraphrase business coach Marie Forleo, the breast cancer community needs that special gift that only you have.


April Johnson Stearns. Founder, editor-in-chief, WILDFIRE Magazine. A lifelong writer, April was diagnosed at 35 years old with Stage 3 breast cancer that she found while breastfeeding her daughter. Four years later, while struggling to “go back to normal” and find other young women in similar circumstances, April launched WILDFIRE Magazine as a way for young women to tell and read breast cancer stories. April grew up on a 43-acre Christmas tree farm with horses, chickens, dogs, cats, and a couple of co-conspirators in the form of younger brothers. The closest neighbor was a half-mile away. Like most who don’t know what they have till it’s gone, she spent her teen years desperate to be “normal” and live in a town. Now she lives with her husband and young daughter on the coast of California in a real-life town where she can see and hear her neighbors almost all the time, but she can also ride her bike down to the beach at a moment’s notice to watch the sunset. Although she does love town life, she also likes to get away from all the hustle and bustle whenever she can to hike in the woods, but writing remains her purest escape.

This piece has been republished with permission from WILDFIRE Magazine, the 2020 “CHANGEMAKERS issue (Vol 5, No 1, Copyright (c) February 2020 by Wildfire Community LLC). More information available at wildfirecommunity.org 

Every month, Rethink will be sharing powerful stories and poetry from WILDFIRE Magazine. Use code RETHINK for 10% off anything in the WILDFIRE Shop.

WILDFIRE Magazine is the only magazine for young women survivors and fighters of breast cancer under 45 years old. Headquartered in Santa Cruz, California, WILDFIRE is a beautiful, story-based bi-monthly magazine published on different themes relevant to young women survivors, from stage 0 to stage IV. Beautiful and ad-free! Visit  wildfirecommunity.org for more info.

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