David Pal entered Rutgers facing a difficulty most first-year students don’t have: his mother, Marna, had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, a disease with one of the worst cancer survival rates.
“My mom told me not to look it up online,” he says, recalling how his mother tried to shield him from her dire prognosis and the worry and sorrow it would stir. His father had died the previous year, from heart problems.
Pal went online anyway and found out more. Due to where the tumor was growing, his mother was unable to have surgery, which might have prolonged her life. She had chemotherapy and radiation treatment, followed special diets and used homeopathic medicine.
“She tried really hard,” he says. “She was very determined.” During Pal’s first semester at Rutgers, he studied for finals in his mother’s hospital room. She died a short time later.
He had received scholarships for freshman year. After his mother’s death, a student who also had lost her parents urged him to talk with the Office of Financial Aid. He did, and received more aid.
Emotional support from neighbors and friends in South Brunswick, his hometown, helped him throughout. “It was a couple of very difficult years,” he says.
Later, Pal met Elizabeth Diaz, a Rutgers student who lost her grandfather to brain and lung cancer during her junior year. The two talked about the financial and emotional challenges they faced – and help they received – when cancer affected their families.
Growing from those conversations, the two recent Rutgers graduates now are paying it forward to New Jersey college students in similar situations. They cofounded Marna’s Pals, a scholarship organization for undergraduates facing financial strain due to cancer in the family.
Diaz’s grandfather lived in Paramus with her mother and sister. “He was financially dependent on us, so it was huge when all those bills came in and my mother was responsible,” she says. Diaz was receiving financial aid, including loans, but, “I wasn’t completely dependent on it until he became sick.”
She graduated Rutgers in 2012, with a B.S. in public health from the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences and the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy. Pal received a B.S. in biomedical engineering and public health in 2011 from the School of Engineering.
The two understand the importance of helping students when cancer hits home. “They think, ‘It’s not me. I don’t have cancer,’ so they won’t make themselves known,” Pal says. “If there’s a college fund, that can be depleted very quickly if someone in the family has cancer.”
Brenda K. Bly, a social worker at the Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey, often sees those struggling with such issues. “People don’t always recognize the enormous impact of cancer on the family,” she says.
Marna’s Pals takes its name from Pal’s mother because “the last name just clicked,” Pal says. Both cofounders were involved in the organization’s development and growth. Early fundraising included selling cake pops baked in a Rutgers’ fraternity house. The group received charity tax status in 2012 and now fundraises through social media and events. Seven of eight original board members were Rutgers alumni.
Last year, Marna’s Pals awarded two scholarships ($2,000 and $500) while building its endowment. Such grants “could be like a lifeline” for those who need them, Bly says. For 2014, the group plans to award a total of $10,000.
“When we thought of a scholarship fund, we knew we couldn’t provide a full year’s tuition, but maybe pay for books or part of a meal plan. That would have made a big difference for me,” says Diaz.
The organization also is working to create campus-based support groups for those affected by family cancer. “Students are going through a lot of trauma and stress at home, ” Pal says. “Having another friend on campus who knows what you’re going through helps a lot…the other person may have insight of what to do, how to navigate the university.”
Support groups are planned for Rutgers-New Brunswick, Princeton University (where Pal is a PhD candidate) and Rider University. Marna’s Pals is receiving advice from the cancer support organization Gilda’s Club in northern New Jersey.
According to Bly, such groups can provide powerful help. “An ongoing support group for young people means everyone in that room is going to be in the same boat. That’s what makes it meaningful,” she says. “It’s a great idea.”