This story was corrected on Jan. 9, 2013. An explanation follows the story.
Breaks from college aren’t all about relaxing for Chantilly’s Nikki Ferraro.
The James Madison University sophomore often spends her breaks and weekends at home attending board meetings and fundraisers for the nonprofit she founded while still in high school.
Bite Me Cancer marked its second full year of operation last week, with Ferraro outlining her goals for 2013, which include completing a $50,000 fundraising effort to sponsor a research grant.
The foundation has two focus areas: backing thyroid cancer research and providing support to teens who are diagnosed with cancer. Both draw on Ferraro’s own experiences.
In April 2010, Ferraro was diagnosed with Sporadic Medullary Thyroid Cancer. Despite her parents’ objections, she formed a Relay for Life team two weeks later and raised $5,000 just within the first three days, and about $20,000 by the time of the event.
Her Relay team had the cheeky name “Bite Me Cancer,” complete with custom T-shirts and wristbands that she used as part of her fundraising efforts.
“I wanted to continue,” Ferraro said, and she began bugging her parents to help her start a nonprofit foundation and continue raising money.
“Eventually, we caved in,” said Nikki’s mother, Sharon Ferraro.
They initially thought it would be a small project to keep Nikki busy, but soon found that their friends and business contacts were happy to help support the cause with pro bono web design, legal help and other professional services.
Bite Me Cancer, formed in September 2010, now has a 15-member board and is involved in several initiatives.
The biggest goal of the organization is to provide support for teens who have cancer; support that Ferraro wished she had after she was diagnosed and going through treatments. She found that existing support services were geared toward adults or young children.
“I got a gift bag when I was diagnosed that had coloring books and other things that I couldn’t benefit from,” she said.
Working with partner organizations, including Inova Health System, Bite Me Cancer provides bags for teens that include items like a USB drive with Nikki Ferraro’s story, an iTunes gift card, playing cards and items like a water bottle with the Bite Me Cancer logo.
They also support a private Facebook page where teens with cancer can network and get support from others who are going through similar experiences.
“Being a teenager is hard enough,” Ferraro said, and a cancer diagnosis can be very isolating for teens.
“Teenagers face a lot of issues when they are diagnosed with cancer,” said Holly Senn, a child life specialist at Inova. In addition to the things that other cancer patients struggle with, it can be hard for teens to miss out on special events like prom or other social activities with friends, she said.
The other big project that Bite Me Cancer is continuing to work on in 2013 is an effort to raise $50,000 to fund a two-year research grant for younger scientists working on thyroid cancer treatments or cures.
In 2012, the organization raised more than $20,000 of that money, in part with the help of local business sponsors like Paisano’s Pizza.
From Sept. 18 to Nov. 13, Paisano’s gave $1 from every large pizza sold on Tuesdays to Bite Me Cancer, raising more than $12,700.
“When I first met [Nikki], she was such an inspiration,” said Paisano’s owner Fouad Qreitem. “I was blown away.”
At the Jan. 3 kickoff event, Qreitem pledged to continue supporting Bite Me Cancer in 2013.
The pizza campaign also had an unexpected effect on Raina Tomlinson, a Fairfax resident and thyroid cancer survivor who said she bottled up her anxiety about her cancer because her doctor treated it as if thyroid cancer was not a big deal. Because thyroid cancer has a higher survival rate than other types of cancer, it is sometimes called “the good cancer.”
When Tomlinson ordered a pizza and saw the flier about the thyroid cancer fundraiser, “something clicked inside my brain,” she said. “The biggest thing is that I learned I wasn’t alone.”
Tomlinson quickly got involved with Bite Me Cancer and is now a member of the group’s advisory committee.
“It’s opened so many doors for me, personally,” she said.
Correction: The original version of this story contained an incorrect date.