Jeff Clemetson | Editor
[Editor’s note: This interview is part of a recurring series about local people or organizations that make a difference or positive impact in the community. If you know of a local difference maker that lives or has offices in the Mission Valley area, contact editor Jeff Clemetson at firstname.lastname@example.org.]
Sometimes, becoming a difference maker stems from a personal experience. That is the case with Tiana LaCerva, who is a two-time cancer survivor who now works at The Seany Foundation organizing events for children with cancer — events she participated in when she was a child.
La Cerva is new to Mission Valley, who moved here in June of this year. She grew up in Alpine and before taking the job at The Seany Foundation, she worked her way up in restaurants from server at fine dining restaurants, to manager at Searsucker, to sales and events manager at Juniper & Ivy.
Her new position at The Seany Foundation now brings her full circle, giving back to children the way the foundation gave to her.
How did you come to work at the Seany Foundation? What do you do there?
I’m the director of events at The Seany Foundation and oversee all the fundraising events we host every year. I’ve actually been involved with the program since I was 8 years old (so for the last 23 years) when I first began as a camper at Seany’s Camp Reach for the Sky.
The nurses at Rady’s Children’s Hospital suggested this great, overnight camp for kids diagnosed with cancer to my parents — and they decided to send me. Admittedly, I did not want to go that first year. I thought, “I’m really sick, how is this a good idea? I’m not well enough to go camping. Why would my parents send me away on a bus full of strangers, especially at a time like this?”
I sat by myself fighting tears the whole bus ride up to Julian, but the moment I stepped off the bus, everyone was having fun, being silly. That was the first time I saw other kids with bald heads and portacath scars — just like me. The rest was history.
Since then, this camp community has been my lifeline and safe place. After graduating, I continued my experience as a volunteer counselor in hopes of providing that same comfort and joy to the younger generation of kids dealing with cancer.
You have battled cancer — twice. When was that? What kind of cancer?
My first diagnosis was in 1994, and that was T-cell lymphoma, an aggressive type of blood cancer that affects the immune system. In 2016, I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer (Papillary Thyroid Carcinoma).
How did those fights affect you?
Each diagnosis has affected me differently, but I would say both have reinforced a control issue, which I’ve struggled with my whole life. When you’re dealing with cancer, there’s this tremendous feeling of lack of control in the situation. It’s like you almost surrender to the cancer that has invaded your body, and hope that the treatment plan will work.
It’s left me with this undeniable, forceful need to be in the driver-seat at all times. This control issue has mostly affected my relationships. Being diagnosed with cancer as an adult was even scarier for me, with having greater understanding of the severity, and possible outcome of my diagnosis.
When I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer at the start of 2016, my daughter was just a year old, and I’d recently discovered this greater purpose in life as a mother. I’d also just started with my management position at Juniper & Ivy, which required a lot of time, constant attention, and energy. There was a feeling of helplessness, anger, and frustration, with the weight of the world on my shoulders.
While long-term affects include anxiety, and hypochondriac behaviors, there’s a whole other side to it — you also feel like a badass! Once you process, and reflect what your mind, body, and soul has overcome, and triumphantly proclaim “I’m a cancer survivor,” you feel a little bit like a superhero.
Having cancer changes you forever, but it also gives you a valuable perspective on how to live your life with purpose, and meaning. As a survivor, it gives me that much more motivation to live a better-quality life, for me and my daughter while making a positive change in the pediatric cancer community.
What lessons did you learn about yourself and how do you bring those to your current position at Seany?
I learned what healing mechanisms worked for me. For some, it’s church, for others it’s an overhaul on lifestyle or diet. For me, it was giving back to the community that has suffered the same experiences. Like many others in our tribe, we heal through helping others.
I understand you’ve taken your daughter to Family Camp. Describe that experience.
Yes, my daughter Avalyn and I attended Family Camp and it was the coolest experience, ever! The whole camp community, and traditions that we’ve built over the last 30-plus years have saved my soul and is a huge part of who I am today.
Never in a million years did I think I would be attending Camp Reach for the Sky as an adult, and with my child nonetheless. As a parent, you have this responsibility to stay strong for your kids, and not let them see you suffer. While she was too young to really understand what brought us all together, it was comforting to be around so many other families that are dealing with similar struggles. Watching my daughter be so enthusiastic during our silly campfire songs is what really hit home for me. We actually sing camp songs on a daily basis.
Is there a final thought you’d like to share?
Cancer is far more than just the physical disease. Not only does it affect your social life, financial situation and emotional wellness, it fully affects the lives of those who love you. When someone has cancer, their whole family — or tribe — feels it too. The effects are often lifelong, and don’t go away with remission.
—For more information about The Seany Foundation and its programs like Camp Reach for the Sky, visit theseanyfoundation.org.
—Reach Jeff Clemetson at email@example.com.