Seven years ago today my mother Ann passed away 26 days after being diagnosed with four types of cancer. My mom was my rock, my confidant and my best friend. She was an elementary school teacher who worked with students with disabilities and she lived every day giving back to her family and her community. She also managed to be her kids' #1 fan, and supported my siblings and me in all of our endeavors. I know that my success is because of her support and faith in me.
My mother's death was the hardest thing I have ever experienced and I needed a way to channel my pain. I started to do my research and learned some sobering statistics -- the American Cancer Society estimates that about half of all men and one third of all women will develop cancer during their lifetimes. Those living in low income communities have lower rates of cancer screenings and higher rates of late stage disease, meaning their cancer is discovered later and is harder to treat. I knew I could use my platform as an athlete to make a difference, and in 2008 I founded Athletes vs Cancer with a goal to raise awareness and funds for cancer screenings. Over the past six years I have been overwhelmed by the outpouring of support from teammates, celebrities, friends, family and community members who have joined us in this work. It seemed so difficult at first but now I realize -- you just have to take the first step and you will be amazed at how much you can accomplish.
I started Athletes vs Cancer as a way to honor my mother, but now giving back has become a part of who I am, and more importantly, this is a key value I hope to pass on to my own sons. My focus goes beyond advocacy and fundraising, and in recent years I've become personally involved volunteering with youth and teens battling cancer and other chronic illnesses.
One organization that is close to my heart is CoachArt, an organization that provides lessons in arts and athletics to children impacted by chronic illness. These kids are going through the toughest challenges, and because of their illness they often have to sit on the sidelines and watch other kids do what they can't. As a CoachArt Champion I've been able to attend their adaptive basketball clubs and play ball with these kids and it was incredible. As someone who has been impacted by illness in my own family, I know firsthand the transformative power of being a part of a team, and how important it is to see what you CAN do instead of being told what you can't.
#GivingTuesday is a day that celebrates giving back and thinking beyond yourself. You've read my story and you know the causes I stand up for, and I challenge each of you to find what matters most to you and take a stand. Every one of us has the ability to raise awareness, volunteer, educate our friends and family, and give back to our communities. You don't have to be a professional athlete to be heard -- the most powerful tool you have is your voice.
I promise you that whatever you are going through, giving back opens unprecedented doors. I still miss my mom every day, but when I see the smiles on the faces of the people that I help I know I am honoring her legacy.
This post is part of a series produced in celebration of #GivingTuesday, which will take place this year (2014) on December 2. The idea behind #GivingTuesday is to kickoff the holiday-giving season, in the same way that Black Friday and Cyber Monday kickoff the holiday-shopping season. The Huffington Post will feature posts on #GivingTuesday all month in November. To see all the posts in the series, visit here; follow the conversation via #GivingTuesday and learn more here.
And if you'd like to share your own #GivingTuesday story, please send us your 500-850-word post to firstname.lastname@example.org.