Christmas Without Cancer brings holiday cheer to families affected by illness
By Mike Nolan firstname.lastname@example.org December 16, 2012 6:34PM
Gerri Neylon, right, a nurse at Advocate Christ Medical Center who started a nonprofit called Christmas Without Cancer, delivers gifts to Beth Grady at her home in Chicago, IL, on Sunday, December 16, 2012. | Matt Marton~Sun-Times Media
Updated: January 18, 2013 6:17AM
Having spent 17 years as a nurse in the oncology department at Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn, Gerri Neylon is intimately familiar with the physical impact cancer has on patients and their families.
But for many, there is also a financial struggle that comes with battling cancer, with the cost of treatment and medications becoming overwhelming. Nine years ago, the Evergreen Park woman started Christmas Without Cancer to help cancer patients and their families pay for everyday necessities such as groceries and gas.
“It started off real small,” Neylon said. “It kind of took on a life of its own. The word spreads every year and we get more and more contributions.”
Relying on donations from friends, co-workers and the hospital and businesses, the nonprofit was able to raise $8,000 this year. On Sunday, Neylon and other volunteers brought gift cards and presents to three families, including Beth and Mick Grady in Chicago’s Mount Greenwood community.
A former caregiver and medical coder, Beth Grady, 49, was diagnosed in February with cancer and has been unable to work. She’s on more than a dozen medications and is receiving radiation treatments Monday through Friday at Christ Medical Center.
Singing “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” as they walked into the house, Neylon and her crew carried wreaths filled with gift cards, and a pile of wrapped presents for the couple’s daughter, 8-year-old Becky, who’s a third-grader at Mount Greenwood Elementary.
“It’s a blessing,” Beth Grady said of the visit. “It’s unbelievable what they do. It was looking very grim.”
Her husband has been unable to work for several years due to an on-the-job disability, and underwent surgery in November that involved the placement of titanium rods in his back. A former pipe fitter and carpenter, he’s been channeling his energy toward an organization he founded called Veterans Special Programs American National Network, or V-SPANN, which aims to create television programming tailored to the needs of veterans.
The family has been trying to stretch monthly disability payments to make ends meet, and were initially reluctant to accept help from Neylon.
“She kept asking if there was anything we need,” Beth Grady said. “Sometimes your pride gets in the way.”
As she was getting ready to leave to make a delivery to another family, Neylon embraced Grady, telling her “just keep fightin’ Beth.”
Help throughout the year
Neylon said Christmas Without Cancer was started to help the family of a young woman diagnosed with lung cancer.
“We just got together a bunch of friends and family to help them out” with clothes and gift cards.
After the woman’s death, her husband and brother urged Neylon to keep the effort going.
“It got bigger over the years,” she said.
Reorganized as a nonprofit last year, Christmas Without Cancer has been supported financially by families it has helped over the years, Neylon said.
“It became sort of a pay-it-forward thing,” she said. “It’s not just the patients that we help but their friends and family.”
The organization has no overhead, relying solely on volunteers who “sit around my kitchen table and brainstorm” ideas for raising money, Neylon said.
While the need for help is most acute at the holidays, families coping with cancer can use a hand at other times of the year, and Christmas Without Cancer is now able to do that, she said.
“It’s not to the degree (given to families at Christmas), but if I can give them gas cards and grocery cards to help them through a month or so it’s a help,” Neylon said.
For information about Neylon’s organization, visit christmaswithoutcancer.org or email email@example.com.
Donations payable to “Christmas Without Cancer” can be mailed to P.O. Box 628, Oak Lawn, IL 60454-0628.