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Saratoga’s Joy US Foundation Helps Cancer Survivors And Their Families Embrace Life In The Great Outdoors

Founder Janet Abrahamson discusses the inspiration behind her year-old foundation and its aggressive five-year plan.

The self-made check that Joy US Foundation's Founder and Executive Director Janet Abrahamson carries around with her that she hopes will someday turn into a real one. (Janet Abrahamson)

You may have read a story I published in last year’s “Best Of Everything” Issue about one of my favorite bands, The Weepies, who were set to swing through town for a show at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall. To jog your memory, the folk-pop duo consists of married couple Deb Talan and Steve Tannen, who write some of the happiest sad songs you’ll ever hear. It wasn’t the first time I’d written about the band; in December 2012, I’d published a story on them for a long-shuttered Food Network blog (sadly, no hyperlink), in which Talan had admitted to me that she could be a great cook at times but often resorted to her fictional autobiography, Cooking with Shame: How to Work Through Your Past By Burning Entrees and Bursting Into Tears. In other words, the tone of the piece had been lighthearted, and I’d had a blast working on it.

Then, the following December, things took a turn for the scary. The band, which has always had an active presence on social media, posted to their Facebook page that Talan had been diagnosed with breast cancer and would be undergoing chemotherapy. The grueling treatment would cause her hair to fall out, and she ultimately underwent a double mastectomy. But by June 2014, she was cancer free, and the band’s Facebook page lit up with notes from well-wishers and fans. I, of course, had been following all of this news intently, hoping that I’d get a chance to talk to the band again (but keeping my distance, knowing that it must’ve been a hellish time for the couple, who also had young children). Eventually, that second interview did happen—though, this time, Talan was a cancer survivor and spoke of openly of her struggles with her treatment. Also, in the interview came more heartbreaking news: After asking her, in passing, about one of the band’s more haunting songs, “Orbiting,” Talan confessed that she was not only a survivor of cancer, but also one of sexual abuse. The song had been a letter-in-song to her mother, whom she hadn’t spoken to since the abuse came to light. I remember thinking throughout that interview, as I listened to her two very personal tales of survival, how lucky my wife and I were not to have ever had to deal with anything like that in our own lives.

Ironically, when I jumped on the phone with Talan and Tannen for my interview for the saratoga living feature, the tables had turned drastically: My wife had just been diagnosed with breast cancer, and in a matter of weeks, our lives had been turned upside down. She was doing her best to cope with her new normal—multiple doctors visits, tests, results, biopsies, surgeries, hospitals, healing—and I, pardon my language, was just trying to keep my shit together. It was intense. Our family and friends provided us with a strong support system, but in many ways, we—I—felt very much alone. It was a daily struggle to stay positive. It’s particularly difficult for a creative type—me—someone with such an active imagination. One of the biggest takeaways from that third interview with The Weepies was that cancer—or sexual abuse, for that matter—shouldn’t be a game-ender. And Talan was living proof. In fact, throughout her treatment, she continued writing and recording music. Just listening to the band’s fifth album, Sirens, always gives me goosebumps, because I know it was finished under such incredibly trying circumstances.

Like Talan, instead of letting the gravity of her situation own her, my wife immediately embraced being a cancer survivor and the survivor community at large. She first joined some survivor groups on Facebook and then met them in person. Soon enough, she informed me that she was going to be repelling down steep rock faces with a group called First Descents, that hosted groups of survivors on adventures across the country, putting them up in mansions with personal chefs, all free of charge. (I wasn’t so sure about sending my wife out belaying so soon after her diagnosis, but as I’ve learned, it’s not super smart arguing with her.) And more recently, she went surfing for the first time ever with fellow survivors in Outer Banks, NC, and has been hooked on the sport ever since (she already has a second surf trip planned). Needless to say, she’s such an inspiration to me, and I couldn’t be more proud of her.

And that’s how we get to the subject of this story, which begins at 5:50am on a Tuesday morning at anatomie, the gym I frequent in Troy. My yoga instructor’s boyfriend, Alton “Albee” Daley, who attends the majority of her classes (and is now my trainer every Thursday morning), happened to be on the yoga mat next to me that morning, and since we were both a few minutes early, we got to talking. It turned out that he was headed off to medical school in the fall and had been volunteering his time at the American Cancer Society’s HopeClub in Latham. He’d also been working on events with a Saratoga Springs-based nonprofit called the Joy US Foundation, which offered cancer patients and survivors the ability to enjoy outdoor/athletic events as a way of healing—in the same vein as First Descents (my wife had been on that surf trip the week Daley and I had had this conversation). But unlike the organizations that had taken my wife on her adventure trips, Joy US invited friends and family members along for the ride. As a former college athlete and now trainer, Daley told me that he’d been so drawn to Joy US’ mission that he’d put together a “Workout for a Cause” event for the foundation at Uncle Sam Athletics in Troy, ultimately raising nearly $3000 for it. And he was planning on following it up with a second event, hosting Joy US survivors and their families and friends at his family’s home on Crystal Lake in Averill Park, NY, where there would be kayaking and yoga classes (courtesy of his girlfriend, Teslie), as well as a bunch of food and drinks. He invited me and my wife to the event, and we had an open weekend, so we signed on.

A group of the survivors, including Joy US Foundation vp Greg Relyea (second from right) and survivor Casey (far right), who were at the Joy US event at the Daley’s house in Averill Park, NY, earlier in June. (Joy US Foundation)

Joy Us and all involved got the perfect June day for the event, and when my wife and I arrived, we were met by Joy US’ Founder and Executive Director Janet Abrahamson and her vice president, Greg Relyea, as if we were arriving dignitaries. Daley’s mother escorted us down to the family’s dock, where we met a few survivors and their families. Soon after, Casey, a brain cancer survivor, came down to join us and immediately began a side-conversation with my wife about a surf trip he’d recently been on in Maui. (Like I said, she’s obsessed.) After that, the day was pretty much a blur of friendly conversations, barbecue, yoga—we did two of three 25-minute sessions with Teslie on the Daley’s front lawn—and kayaking (you can find a photo I took of my wife on the lake on my Instagram page). A local organization had donated the kayaks; Whole Foods, the majority of the food; anatomie, the yoga mats (and Teslie, her yogi skills); and of course, the Daleys, their home, front yard, dock and wonderful lake front vistas.

Maybe the greatest part of the day for me was getting to spend it with my wife, who was totally laid back and all smiles. I got to see her in action, owning being a survivor like the boss that she is. I left the event in this state of immense chill and happiness. I, too, had survived.

***

If you’ve been following the news lately, you’ll know that it’s been a rough few years for America’s big pharmaceutical brands. Comic book-style villains such as the Pharma Bro have emerged from the woodwork, making the industry the focus of viral outrage on social media and leading to a feeding frenzy of negative coverage. Joy US Founder Janet Abrahamson has spent nearly her entire career in the pharma industry, and is aware of the public’s perception of it—but counts herself among those in the industry that “put patients first.” (She currently works for Exelixis, a national cancer drug producer.) “I’ve always viewed my job as what I do to pay the bills, and my volunteer work, as what I do to make a difference in the world,” she says. Throughout her decades-long career, she’s helped establish key programs at breast cancer advocacy group To Life! and spent five years coordinating its Pink Ball. She’s done turns as the president and vice president of the American Cancer Society’s (ACS’) board of directors, and it was there that she met the future inspiration for her foundation, fellow board member Glenn Spielman. She describes him as “inspiring” and “generous”—the type of guy that just lit up any room he walked into. “You would never know that he had Stage 4 prostate cancer,” she explains. Shortly before Spielman died, Abrahamson filed the paperwork for a garden in his memory at the HopeClub. And at his bedside in the hospital, she also had the opportunity to tell him how much he’d impacted her life and promised him, when she launched her own foundation, she would name a building after him on its property. “There are a handful of people that come around in this lifetime that really change the way you think,” she says. “He was one of them.”

Joy US Foundation Founder and Executive Director Janet Abrahamson (at right) with her daughter at the snow-tubing event. (Janet Abrahamson)

So Abrahamson took that promise and founded Joy US Foundation, which has been up and running since February 2018. (Last year, Joy US put on 20 events.) The foundation’s mission was very much a function of Abrahamson’s initial vision, which she tells me came to her all at once: “restoring joy and serenity in the lives of cancer survivors and their families by providing access to outdoor experiences,” as is noted on the foundation’s website. “I’ve always restored joy in my own life by getting outdoors,” she says. “My husband and I will get to the top of a mountain, and that’s my spiritual moment, my reawakening.” Sharing that with people and their families who were dealing with the unpredictability of a cancer diagnosis felt like a particularly powerful way to help them communally heal. Besides hiking and kayaking, Joy US has offered snow-tubing adventures, weekend getaways in the Adirondacks and even one indoor event, a bowling day (Abrahamson says she’s not averse to trying whatever survivors might want to do to have a good time—just as long as it gets the pulse up a bit). And as mentioned above, what helps set Joy US’ events apart from many other organization’s adventures is the fact that family and friends are invited to heal along with the survivors themselves. (At that bowling event, someone brought along 11 family members!) “There’s tons of programs for just the cancer patients,” says Abrahamson. “[But] most of the families go through the hard times, and then they miss out on [the rest of the healing process].”

In founding Joy US, Abrahamson was aware that it would involve a fair amount of fundraising, something she admits she’s not that big a fan of. But she understands that it’s a necessary evil; it’s what allows Joy US to be able to offer all the activities and food for free to the survivor community, as well as their family and friends. (In the case of the event that my wife and I went to, Joy US paid to have the kayaks delivered and for some of the food, says Abrahamson.) Speaking of which, Joy US has its latest fundraiser coming up on June 26. Its “Just Add Water Kayaking Fundraiser” takes place from 4pm – 9pm at Fish Creek marina in Saratoga and will feature food courtesy of Rivers Casino and Resort in Schenectady, live entertainment from Matt Cosgrove and will be emceed by local personality Jason Gough, a former meteorologist and now web entrepreneur.

In terms of the bigger picture, Abrahamson has been on the lookout for a permanent outdoor space, possibly in the Adirondacks, that the foundation can take over and set up shop at. It would not only serve as Joy US’ functional headquarters, but also be a sort of sleep-away camp where it could host survivor events aplenty. Abrahamson says she’s had her eye on a 4383-acre abandoned Boy Scouts camp in the Adirondacks, which has two lakes and three mountains. “It’s the most beautiful place I’ve ever been,” she says. But the foundation is a long way off from raising the type of funds to purchase the property outright. Until that day, Joy US is hoping to hash out an agreement with Adirondack Woodcraft Camps, where it already hosts its weekend getaways. The idea would be to trade a set schedule of weekends at the camp for a Joy US-led fundraising project that would go towards beautifying the existing property.

But being the driven person that she is, Abrahamson sees the potential partnership with Adirondack Woodcraft as a stop gap measure; it’s that Boy Scouts camp that has her name on it, that will ultimately fulfill her dream. And she likes to dream big. So much so that she carries around a dog-eared (but fake) check, made out to the Joy US Foundation, to the tune of $10 million. “I carry it because I know that there’s an angel donor out there somewhere that would like a property named after them and want to be known for doing something like this for cancer patients in New York State,” says Abrahamson. I can’t help but think that maybe there’s someone like that in our community. Hell, I know that there’s someone like that out there. Maybe he or she will join me and my wife on the 26th?

 

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Will Levith

Will Levith is the Director of Content for saratogaliving.com and the Executive Editor for saratoga living magazine. He's a native Saratogian and graduate of Saratoga Springs High School. His work has been published by Esquire, Playboy, Condé Nast Traveler, Men's Health, RealClearLife and many others.

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