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Gillian Hearst with her father, Bernard, and mother, Patty

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The Society of Memorial Sloan Kettering

A Closer Look: Gillian Hearst on Losing Her Father to Cancer

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For Gillian Hearst, our #VBGIVESBACK woman of the quarter, the connection to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Care is a deeply personal one. Her father, Bernard, was a patient at the hospital. "The doctors were phenomenal—with the surgery, which was especially scary, with his radiation, with everything," says Hearst, who joined its volunteer-led organization, The Society of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, the year he passed. "My father had gotten such incredible care at MSK, I wanted to give back in a meaningful way." Last year Hearst stepped up even further—as Chair of The Society of MSK's Associates Committee. Here, she shares her story. 

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Essay

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My father had a lump in his cheek and, for years, doctors told him to just suck on sour candy. They would say it's nothing, no big deal, a blocked salivary gland. But it wasn't going away. 

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He finally went to Memorial Sloan Kettering and was told he needed to remove it immediately—his parotid salivary gland had cancer. It was a pretty bleak diagnosis. The lump was in his left cheek in the salivary gland. When he finally got that removed, they removed a few lymphnoids and those came back positive—then they removed them all above his collar bone. Of the 20 removed, 18 had cancer. He had to do radiation from the collar bone up as well as chemo. I remember sitting with him during all his chemo sessions—I'd bring a DVD player and keep him entertained and distracted. 

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Throughout the process, the doctors were phenomenal—with the surgery, which was especially scary, with his radiation, with everything. 

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The hospital offers genetic testing, which treats cancer based off of DNA rather than its location and, thankfully, my father was able to do it. They found out that, even though his cancer started out as parotid cancer, it had metastasized to the lymph nodes and to the bones. It also had the markers of prostate cancer, which MSK was able to treat—and not only got it to slow down but stop for a while. My father ended up getting seven years that he wouldn't have had. 

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“My philanthropy comes from the heart. I think it always has to. If you're passionate about something, you will work hard for it.”

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I officially got involved with the Associates Committee for The Society of Memorial Sloan Kettering in 2013. My father had gotten such incredible care at MSK, I wanted to give back in a meaningful way. Not everyone, for example, can afford the genetic test. But because of The Society and the fundraising we do, more families can. 

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My philanthropy comes from the heart. I think it always has to. If you're passionate about something, you will work hard for it. And hopefully that passion is contagious—your friends get motivated and your children, too. My parents were heavily involved in philanthropy and taught me by example. I'm also doing the same with my own children. 

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Right now, they're participating in Fully Charged, The Society's new virtual fundraising campaign. For every $100 donated or raised, a power bank cell phone charger will be provided to an MSK Kids frontline worker, so they can keep their phones charged during the pandemic, during double and triple shifts, and stay connected to their loved ones. Additional funds raised will support critical research and patient care programs at MSK Kids. When my kids first signed up, we talked about the cause, the frontline workers they're helping, why it's important.... Open up the conversation with your own kids. That's the key to passing on philanthropy from generation to generation. You can learn more and get them registered here.

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Gillian Hearst with her three daughters

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