Jennifer Maxon is Walla Walla’s cancer warrior


WALLA WALLA — Cancer has many foes trying to take the killer down. Between much-studied medications to mega-events that raise funds for cancer research, the battle continues daily on the front line.

Then there’s Jennifer Maxon.

She hates cancer — what it does to its victims and those who love them. And the Walla Walla native is doing what she can to knock cancer on its can.

Maxon is founder of “Focus on Cancer,” a locally-based nonprofit group driven to improve outcomes for cancer patients and their family members.

The organization does so by funneling donations to research, promoting social interaction for cancer patients and helping medical providers stay looped in to information on cancer care.

Maxon, 42, initially embarked on a circuitous career route that circled back home three years ago, and now in her current job. A college degree and first step in a hospital nursing career turned into working in genetic engineering. That led to oncology nursing that morphed into medical research and writing.

“That’s how I fell into a niche I didn’t even know existed,” she said

She became proficient at learning all she could about health-care data that physicians need to stay informed to give patients the best advice.

“It was a perfect marriage of my science and medical background,” Maxon said. “Doctors don’t know the science behind the new drugs, they’re with patients eight hours a day. They have to keep up with medical findings and they have a life.”

Her interest in oncology flew the highest flag through all the transitions, and the time came for Maxon to jump in all the way.

In 2012, she and other oncology experts — nurses, scientists, patients and survivors ­— began “Focus on Cancer” to offer a diversified approach to battling the arch enemy. Its doctrine holds there are three big unmet needs in taking cancer down, Maxon said.

The first is that researchers who are in the trenches and doing breakthrough work should get the money needed to carry on. It’s that sort of dedication that ultimately achieves major advancements in prevention, early detection, treatment and cures.

The second tenet is reducing social isolation for all people affected by cancer, “in any way,” Maxon said. Studies show staying in touch with community may improve quality of life for victims of the disease and their families. In putting feet to the theory, her group hosts recreational and social activities at different locations.

Take the recent iPad giveaways, at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center in Spokane and St. Luke’s Boise Medical Center. The nonprofit group bought several of the devices with cash donations.

By going to hospitals and handing off the mini computers to pediatric cancer patients, Maxon’s group hopes to provide an electronic conduit between hospital bed and the world at large.

“These children and teens are in the hospital for weeks and months at a time. It will allow them communication with friends and families, through Skyping, Facebook ... a connection more than the phone,” Maxon said. “And keeping up with school work, or participating in a field trip in real time. It’s a diversion against fear, anxiety, pain and loneliness.”

Even playing a game or watching a movie on the device can calm a child or teen and give them a few minutes away from the reality of their situation, she added.

Focus on Cancer looks for ways to give away its electronics, rather waiting for hospitals to come to it. And it was surprising to her that iPads for patients is a novel idea to administrators, she said.

“I thought hospitals would have a few and none of them have any.”

Third, Focus on Cancer takes Maxon’s thirst for information and provides daily blog posts summarized from global cancer news, such as results from clinical trials.

Those trials can be a sticking point for patients and cancer centers, and its equally frustrating for her, Maxon said.

“I’ve been contacted by several people in the area who were told to get their affairs in order and I say, ‘I know there are drugs in the pipeline. I know there are amazing trials going on right now.’”

But matching patient eligibility with a promising trial is a full-time job no doctor alone could have time for, and Walla Walla’s location and size makes it even more difficult, she said.

“Physicians all try really, really hard to provide the latest and greatest, but I think they are limited by lack of access.”

It takes a “huge” number of support staff and well-oiled programs to fit patients to models of treatment that are being tested, whether those are happening in Walla Walla or elsewhere, she added.

Those are the gaps Maxon and her handful of volunteers strive to fill with the multipronged approach of Focus on Cancer. With medical background, research credentials and personal confrontation with the enemy, the team understands the disease well, she said.

Unlike many nonprofits or for-profit medical entities, Focus on Cancer is dedicated only to the issues of cancer.

“This allows us to focus all of our efforts, time, money and resources to improving outcomes of cancer,” Maxon said. “We believe that by specializing in cancer, we can provide optimal achievements in our goals.”

As founder of the organization, she said she is not sure why she has been so drawn to being a cancer warrior.

“Doesn’t that sound odd? But I have seen, during my time in the cancer world, I have seen amazing strides, starting with science. I see good things on the horizon. And I’ve experienced the patient and human side, and people and organizations coming together more than in the past.”

Cancer better watch its back.


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