This mom-daughter relationship proves older kids in foster care are worth a second look.
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Ad Council - Adopt US Kids

Ever since Liz was a young girl, she knew she wanted to adopt.

This feeling only solidified as she grew into a determined and passionate woman.

As a teacher of 20-plus years and an avid community service provider, she always felt pulled toward the idea of helping kids in need.


"I knew there were a lot of children in the world that needed good homes," Liz said.

Photo by Liz.

However, when Liz was diagnosed with uterine cancer at 27, she had to put her adoption plans on hold.

On top of that, Liz was in her 30s and caring for her sick mother, so she didn't formally start looking to become an adoptive parent until she was in her early 40s.

By that time, Liz had also been in remission for 13 years, which she counted as a sign to move forward.

But her friends weren't entirely on board with her adoption plan.

Liz wanted to foster to adopt, meaning she'd foster a child in the foster care system with the intention of adopting. Several of her friends thought she was asking for trouble. They couldn't understand why she didn't want to adopt a baby.

But a baby wasn’t Liz’s plan. She’d always had a soft spot for older kids, which is why she didn't hesitate to start the course to become a foster parent.

Once you get through the training, they assign you a social worker and put your information in the system so that kids' social workers can find and match you.

Liz was first scheduled to meet a 13-year-old girl. But when the girl's social worker met with Liz during a preliminary house inspection, she made an unusual recommendation.

She told Liz she thought she had an even better match for her, but the girl in question, Ashley, was 15.

Ashley. Photo via AdoptUsKids. Used with permission.

To the social worker's surprise, Liz was totally on board to meet Ashley instead.

Their first meeting was in January 2012 at an ice cream shop. It was a bit awkward, especially considering the social worker was sitting at the table with them, but the two got along well despite that.

So they set up weekly get-togethers and phone conversations to see if they were the right fit for each other.

"Once we started to talk, we bonded quickly," writes Ashley in an email.

"Ashley and I say it’s like we dated," Liz jokes.

Ashley (left) and Liz (right) eating ice cream.

So, after about six weeks of "dating," Ashley moved into Liz's house and started at the local high school — Westford Academy.

There was an adjustment period, to be sure, especially in terms of her academic life. Ashley's education was full of gaps, partially because her birth mother had taken her out of school for long stretches of time and Westford was a rather prestigious school. But Liz worked with Ashley to help her catch up, and eventually her grades improved.

Ashley also went to therapy regularly to help her cope with all the trauma she experienced as a child.

And slowly but surely, she began to feel more secure in her life with Liz. The two became close.

"I realized that I was comfortable when I started to share things with her about my past," Ashley recalls.

Eventually, Ashley started calling Liz "Mom."

Liz (left) and Ashley (right). Photo via Liz Benstead.

About a year after Ashley moved in with Liz, Liz officially adopted her. Ashley was 16 at the time, making her the oldest child to be adopted in Massachusetts in 2012.

"I was excited," said Ashley in an Ad Council interview. "[I'd] finally have a forever home."

Needless to say, it was a big moment for both mom and daughter. But it was just the beginning of experiences that would bring them closer together.

Liz took Ashley on her first major trip somewhere — they went to Las Vegas. They often get mani-pedis together, and they made a ritual of cooking together, although Liz jokes that Ashley's a way better cook than she is.

Liz also helped her get into volunteering — a passion they both independently shared.

They started a nonprofit called Suitcases of Hope, which provides kids in foster care with their own duffle bags filled with comfort items like sheets, a toothbrush, even a stuffed animal.

"Most kids have to throw all their clothes into garbage bags when they move to a new foster home," Liz says. This personal duffle bag is something that can really feel like theirs.

Aside from Suitcases, between high school and college, Ashley also joined the AmeriCorps City Year program, which connects volunteers with underserved kids who are struggling in school.

The experience helped her get into Central Piedmont Community College, where she achieved a 4.0 GPA. She plans to transfer soon to a four-year college.

According to Liz, Ashley often says the 15-year-old she was wouldn't recognize the young woman she's become — in the best way.

Liz and Ashley traveling in New York City together. Photo via Liz Benstead.

On the flip side, Liz says Ashley's made her more patient, resilient, and understanding. Now that Ashley's in her life, she's smiling and laughing much more often.

That said, Ashley doesn't shy away from telling her story. In fact, she and her mom often speak publicly about adoption, which is how they eventually got connected with AdoptUSKids — a national organization that helps support child welfare systems.

"She is ... determined to say to the world, 'Look, I was in foster care, I've been neglected and abused, and guess what, I made it,'" Liz says.

"I'm no longer doubting myself a lot, I don't have low self-esteem," said Ashley in an Ad Council interview. "And that's all thanks to my mom."

If Ashley could tell prospective adoptive parents anything, it would be to not overlook the foster care system.

"Ignore any misconceptions about foster kids. Every child wants to be loved," Ashley says.

To learn more about adoption and awesome teens like Ashley, check out AdoptUsKids, or contact them via phone, email or chat. And to hear more about Ashley and Liz, check out the video below:

Since his first hit single "Keep Your Head Up" in 2011, award-winning multi-platinum recording artist Andy Grammer has made a name for himself as the king of the feel-good anthem. From "Good to Be Alive (Hallelujah)" to "Honey, I'm Good" to "Back Home" and more, his positive, upbeat songs have blared on beaches and at backyard barbecues every summer.

So what does a singer who loves to perform in front of live audiences and is known for uplifting music do during an unexpectedly challenging year of global pandemic lockdown?

He goes inward.

Grammer told Upworthy that losing the ability to perform during the pandemic forced him to look at where his self-worth came from. "I thought I would have scored better, to be honest," he says. "Like, 'Oh, I get it from all the important, right places!' And then it's taken all away in one moment, and you're like, 'Oh, nope, I was getting a lot from that.'

"It's kind of cool to break all the way down and then hopefully put myself back together in a way that's a little more solid," he says.

Keep Reading Show less

Since his first hit single "Keep Your Head Up" in 2011, award-winning multi-platinum recording artist Andy Grammer has made a name for himself as the king of the feel-good anthem. From "Good to Be Alive (Hallelujah)" to "Honey, I'm Good" to "Back Home" and more, his positive, upbeat songs have blared on beaches and at backyard barbecues every summer.

So what does a singer who loves to perform in front of live audiences and is known for uplifting music do during an unexpectedly challenging year of global pandemic lockdown?

He goes inward.

Grammer told Upworthy that losing the ability to perform during the pandemic forced him to look at where his self-worth came from. "I thought I would have scored better, to be honest," he says. "Like, 'Oh, I get it from all the important, right places!' And then it's taken all away in one moment, and you're like, 'Oh, nope, I was getting a lot from that.'

"It's kind of cool to break all the way down and then hopefully put myself back together in a way that's a little more solid," he says.

Keep Reading Show less
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Each year, an estimated 1.8 million people in the United States are affected by cancer — most commonly cancers of the breast, lung, prostate, and blood cancers such as leukemia. While not everyone overcomes the disease, thanks to science, more people are surviving — and for longer — than ever before in history.

We asked three people whose lives have been impacted by cancer to share their stories – how their lives were changed by the disease, and how they're using that experience to change the future of cancer treatments with the hope that ultimately, in the fight against cancer, science will win. Here's what they had to say.

Celine Ryan, 55, engineer database programmer and mother of five from Detroit, MI

Photo courtesy of Celine Ryan

In September 2013, Celine Ryan woke up from a colonoscopy to some traumatic news. Her gastroenterologist showed her a picture of the cancerous mass they found during the procedure.

Ryan and her husband, Patrick, had scheduled a colonoscopy after discovering some unusual bleeding, so the suspicion she could have cancer was already there. Neither of them, however, were quite prepared for the results to be positive -- or for the treatment to begin so soon. Just two days after learning the news, Ryan had surgery to remove the tumor, part of her bladder, and 17 cancerous lymph nodes. Chemotherapy and radiation soon followed.

Ryan's treatment was rigorous – but in December 2014, she got the devastating news that the cancer, once confined to her colon, had spread to her lungs. Her prognosis, they said, was likely terminal.

But rather than give up hope, Ryan sought support from online research, fellow cancer patients and survivors, and her medical team. When she brought up immunotherapy to her oncologist, he quickly agreed it was the best course of action. Ryan's cancer, like a majority of colon and pancreatic cancers, had been caused by a defect on the gene KRAS, which can result in a very aggressive cancer that is virtually "undruggable." According to the medical literature, the relatively smooth protein structure of the KRAS gene meant that designing inhibitors to bind to surface grooves and treat the cancer has been historically difficult. Through her support systems, Ryan discovered an experimental immunotherapy trial at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, MD., and called them immediately to see if she was eligible. After months of trying to determine whether she was a suitable candidate for the experimental treatment, Ryan was finally accepted.

The treatment, known as tumor-infiltrating lymphocyte therapy, or TIL, is a testament to how far modern science has evolved. With this therapy, doctors remove a tumor and harvest special immune cells that are found naturally in the tumor. Doctors then grow the cells in a lab over the next several weeks with a protein that promotes rapid TIL growth – and once the cells number into the billions, they are infused back into the patient's body to fight the cancer. On April 1, 2015, Ryan had her tumor removed at the NIH. Two months later, she went inpatient for four weeks to have the team "wash out" her immune system with chemotherapy and infuse the cells – all 148 billion of them – back into her body.

Six weeks after the infusion, Ryan and Patrick went back for a follow-up appointment – and the news they got was stunning: Not only had no new tumors developed, but the six existing tumors in her lungs had shrunk significantly. Less than a year after her cell infusion, in April 2016, the doctors told Ryan news that would have been impossible just a decade earlier: Thanks to the cell infusion, Ryan was now considered NED – no evaluable disease. Her body was cancer-free.

Ryan is still NED today and continuing annual follow-up appointments at the NIH, experiencing things she never dreamed she'd be able to live to see, such as her children's high school and college graduations. She's also donating her blood and cells to the NIH to help them research other potential cancer treatments. "It was an honor to do so," Ryan said of her experience. "I'm just thrilled, and I hope my experience can help a lot more people."

Patrice Lee, PhD, VP of Pharmacology, Toxicology and Exploratory Development at Pfizer

Photo courtesy of Patrice Lee

Patrice Lee got into scientific research in an unconventional way – through the late ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau.

Lee never met Cousteau but her dreams of working with him one day led her to pursue a career in science. Initially, Lee completed an undergraduate degree in marine biology; eventually, her interests changed and she decided to get a dual doctoral degree in physiology and toxicology at Duke University. She now works at Pfizer's R&D site in Boulder, CO (formerly Array BioPharma), leading a group of scientists who determine the safety and efficacy of new oncology drugs.

"Scientists focused on drug discovery and development in the pharmaceutical industry are deeply committed to inventing new therapies to meet unmet needs," Lee says, describing her field of work. "We're driven to achieve new medicines and vaccines as quickly as possible without sacrificing safety."

Among the drugs Lee has helped develop during her career, including cancer therapies, she says around a dozen are currently in development, while nine have received FDA approval — an incredible accomplishment as many scientists spend their careers without seeing their drug make it to market. Lee's team is particularly interested in therapies for brain metastases — something that Lee says is a largely unmet need in cancer research, and something her team is working on from a variety of angles. "Now that we've had rapid success with mRNA vaccine technology, we hope to explore what the future holds when applying this technology to cancers," Lee says.

But while evaluating potential cancer therapies is a professional passion of Lee's, it's also a mission that's deeply personal. "I'm also a breast cancer survivor," she says. "So I've been on the other side of things and have participated in a clinical trial."

However, seeing how melanoma therapies that she helped develop have affected other real-life cancer patients, she says, has been a highlight of her career. "We had one therapy that was approved for patients with BRAF-mutant metastatic melanoma," Lee recalls. "Our team in Boulder was graced by a visit from a patient that had benefited from these drugs that we developed. It was a very special moment for the entire team."

None of these therapies would be available, Lee says without rigorous science behind it: "Facts come from good science. Facts will drive the development of new drugs, and that's what will help patients."

Chiuying "Cynthia" Kuk (they/them) MS, 34, third-year medical student at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine

Photo courtesy of Cynthia Kuk

Cynthia Kuk was just 10 years old when they had a conversation that would change their life forever.

"My mother, who worked as a translator for the government at the time, had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and after her chemotherapy treatments she would get really sick," Kuk, who uses they/them pronouns, recalls. "When I asked my dad why mom was puking so much, he said it was because of the medicine she was taking that would help her get better."

Kuk's response was immediate: "That's so stupid! Why would a medicine make you feel worse instead of better? When I'm older, I want to create medicine that won't make people sick like that."

Nine years later, Kuk traveled from their native Hong Kong to the United States to do exactly that. Kuk enrolled in a small, liberal arts college for their Bachelor's degree, and then four years later started a PhD program in cancer research. Although Kuk's mother was in remission from her cancer at the time, Kuk's goal was the same as it had been as a 10-year-old watching her suffer through chemotherapy: to design a better cancer treatment, and change the landscape of cancer research forever.

Since then, Kuk's mission has changed slightly.

"My mom's cancer relapsed in 2008, and she ended up passing away about five years after that," Kuk says. "After my mom died, I started having this sense of urgency. Cancer research is such that you work for twenty years, and at the end of it you might have a fancy medication that could help people, but I wanted to help people now." With their mother still at the forefront of their mind, Kuk decided to quit their PhD program and enter medical school.

Now, Kuk plans to pursue a career in emergency medicine – not only because they are drawn to the excitement of the emergency room, but because the ER is a place where the most marginalized people tend to seek care.

"I have a special interest in the LGBTQ+ population, as I identify as queer and nonbinary," says Kuk. "A lot of people in this community and other marginalized communities access care through the ER and also tend to avoid medical care since there is a history of mistreatment and judgement from healthcare workers. How you carry yourself as a doctor, your compassion, that can make a huge difference in someone's care."

In addition to making a difference in the lives of LGBTQ+ patients, Kuk wants to make a difference in the lives of patients with cancer as well, like their mother had.

"We've diagnosed patients in the Emergency Department with cancer before," Kuk says. "I can't make cancer good news but how you deliver bad news and the compassion you show could make a world of difference to that patient and their family."

During their training, Kuk advocates for patients by delivering compassionate and inclusive care, whether they happen to have cancer or not. In addition to emphasizing their patient's pronouns and chosen names, they ask for inclusive social and sexual histories as well as using gender neutral language. In doing this, they hope to make medicine as a whole more accessible for people who have been historically pushed aside.

"I'm just one person, and I can't force everyone to respect you, if you're marginalized," Kuk says. "But I do want to push for a culture where people appreciate others who are different from them."