Be Seen, Get Screened's Hero of the Month series highlights the work of inspiring individuals on the front line in the fight against colon cancer. In our latest Q&A, we talked to Heidi Burkhart, President of Saxon/Hart, a cause-driven marketing company, and Will Lanier, a personal trainer diagnosed with colon cancer at age 28.
Heidi's Saxon/Hart team started the #BlankCancer initiative, a campaign that has taken over Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram in order to raise awareness and generate funding to assist cancer patients across the country simply by "filling in the blank."
We had the opportunity to talk with both Heidi and Will about their #BlankCancer story.
Be Seen, Get Screened: Can you tell us about your personal connection to colon cancer?
Heidi Burkhart: When Will Lanier approached me with the news that he had colon cancer, it was honestly the first time colorectal cancer really became present in my life. Immediately, as many know I do, I Googled to learn more about the condition. The more I researched and studied the topic, the more I became passionate about doing something bigger for, and with, Will.
Saxon/Hart – my cause marketing firm that reinvests its net profits into direct impact, giving forward initiatives – touches many topics, including homelessness, veterans, children, nutrition, ecology and cancer. I find it a true blessing each time my eyes are opened to a new situation that deserves so much more attention than what is given.
Since launching our #BlankCancer campaign, I have met many other amazing individuals – some still fighting, some in remission and others who have conquered the disease. The number of people and variety of ages of those affected are truly staggering. As such, colon and colorectal cancer are definitely areas that I feel passionate about continuing to help grow awareness and educating the general public.
Will Lanier: Having been diagnosed with Ulcerative Colitis in 2005, I became hyper aware of everything going on "down there." I saw my doctors regularly and had exams in-office, sigmoidoscopies, and full on colonoscopies every 2 years or so.
When the flare-ups got worse, I turned to a new doctor who performed another colonoscopy a mere 6 months after one I had with another physician. This was when signet ring cell adenocarcinoma was discovered in a very early stage. I am lucky to have caught the cancer early, but I would never have even known if it weren’t for the regular checks and exams.
Be Seen, Get Screened: Will, what inspired you to reach out to Heidi to raise awareness for colon cancer?
Will Lanier: I have worked with Heidi before on another giving forward initiative she did and became close to her during that time. It was honestly my first thought when I decided I wanted to start an awareness campaign. Heidi has a huge heart, no fear and I knew she would be the one to kick this campaign off in a big way.
Be Seen, Get Screened: Tell us about the #BlankCancer initiative. What were your initial goals for the campaign and how has it evolved since its inception?
Heidi Burkhart: With Will specifically, our goal was to bring awareness to ulcerative colitis/colorectal cancer and raise funds – via a series of fitness fundraising events in NYC to launch the campaign – to offset some of his hospital expenses.
From there, #BlankCancer grew into a larger, national social media campaign – one that reaches beyond New York City to engage individuals, encouraging them to be their own voice against cancer. We wanted to make it as simple as possible for parties to join our initiative while allowing everyone to bring their own style, emotions, and words to the fight against cancer.
Our goal is to have every single person involved by going to our website, printing a #BlankCancer sign, “filling in the blank,” taking a selfie and posting on social media tagging us at #BlankCancer.
Our goal with #BlankCancer is simple: education and awareness; it’s all-inclusive, targeting anyone who has suffered from cancer, been affected by cancer or simply wants to fight/cure cancer. Ultimately, we would love for the campaign to go larger globally and fully engage people throughout the world. Cancer has no geographic boundaries so why would we impose such on our campaign.
We have had several potential sponsors approach us since launching, so we’re looking forward to some exciting collaborations in the near future. This will allow us to make an even bigger impact, bringing more awareness while touching the lives of even more of those in need.
We love seeing all of the people who are putting their voice to the fight against cancer, uniting for an important cause and raising awareness. Nothing has been more rewarding than seeing those who are in the hospital recovering from surgery or in chemotherapy, reaching out to us, sharing their voice – smiling, laughing and connecting with others in similar positions – with their own #BlankCancer signs seen on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.
In my professional and personal life, I’m a strong believer in the benefits of setting goals and see the fulfillment in working to accomplish them, one by one. Often times, once a goal is reached, I’ve already set another one. This is how I approached the campaign and how I approach Saxon/Hart.
My ultimate goal for Saxon/Hart is to continue to impact the lives of individuals in need of our giving forward initiatives on a much larger scale; connecting likeminded people – individuals, schools, partners, businesses, etc. – with similar interests who want to make an impact in their community and inspire others to get involved.
Be Seen, Get Screened: Heidi, your company Saxon/Hart’s motto is “Give to live. Live to give.” How has the Blank Cancer campaign helped you drive this mission and share it with the public?
Heidi Burkhart: Wow, where to begin. The #BlankCancer campaign has inspired so many – particularly on social media – providing hope, solace, strength and a sense of appreciation to everyone who has seen it.
Gaining traction among men, women, kids, celebrities, and even the family pets, some signs have proven to be truly creative works of art. Participants have submitted signs on intricate backdrops, or featuring unique illustrations, embracing the opportunity to express their originality while uniting with others in the fight against cancer.
I believe that when one takes the time to print the sign off our website, fill in the blank, take a selfie and post to their social media channels (with the #BlankCancer hashtag), they’re truly doing so much for themselves and for others. It’s a small thing that makes a big difference.
It’s free and it’s easy, but those few seconds really matter. Those few seconds bring awareness and education to cancer.
Be Seen, Get Screened: What does a typical day look like for each of you on the front line in the fight against cancer?
Heidi Burkhart: Saxon/Hart is involved with key community awareness and outreach programs. Cancer is one that we hold dear to our hearts here with our Saxon/Hart family. Noting this, a typical day has two constants:
- Change—no two days are exactly the same and
- Working with a great team of individuals who have a passion for helping others and making a difference.
I am blessed that we have many great projects and collaborations coming together, so there isn’t much down time. I’m a strong believer that some of the best ideas come to fruition during brainstorming sessions. While there is work that needs to be done on a continuous basis, to reach the many goals set for ourselves, this approach – which we fully embrace at Saxon/Hart – is continually evolving.
We’re excited for our new adventures and the new people we will meet, while at the same time, we are thankful for the friends who have touched our hearts already and hopeful they will continue to inspire others to make a difference.
"On a personal level, I have grown to love more knowing that we truly have only but one life. I love. We love. We are the by-product of love. Really can not get better than that. Can it?!"
Be Seen, Get Screened: How has this experience shaped your personal and professional journey since #BlankCancer started? Have you encountered any unique challenges or opportunities throughout the campaign?
Heidi Burkhart: Steve Jobs said, “The journey is the reward.” The journey for us at Saxon/Hart is still in the early stages, but how beautiful it has been thus far – ups, downs, mistakes, successes, great lessons learned and friends (who we call family) gained. Journeys are not meant to be easy, but they are meant to be respected. My team at Saxon/Hart is truly exceptional and selfless, and I could not be more proud of them.
We are looking forward to some of the larger #BlankCancer initiatives and events we have planned, and are beyond excited for the impact they will make. We are so lucky to have the opportunity to work directly with courageous individuals and in the process, inspire the masses.
On a more direct level, our team at Saxon/Hart has met some amazing fighters as a result of our social media #BLANKCANCER campaign who are working with us to bring awareness of specific cancers.
Avi Newhouse, a young man diagnosed with Leukemia, is brainstorming with us on how to bring more awareness to Children Cancers. We had our first pow-wow the other day at the Net’s Open Practice which was a dream come true meeting the players. Our goal with Avi is to reach the White House to join us in bringing more awareness to Children Cancer.
Austin Roden a 24-year old from Chattanooga diagnosed with brain cancer is one of our Ambassadors who assisted organizing the great City of Chattanooga proclaiming November 7th as #BLANKCANCER Day to bring awareness to Adolescent and Young Adult cancer.
Julie Yipp is another fighter diagnosed with Stage 4 Colon Cancer. She is one who has done so much already for awareness to Colon Cancer—and we are excited to find ways to work with her in the near future. I have a feeling, as many things we do, working with Julie will start small but turn out big.
As Oprah always demonstrated, “Go big or go home!” Rings true here at our office. I blame it on our underlying passion with our collaborators and ambassadors being so strong.
Heart, focus, and determination—all these parties have it. Saxon/Hart is blessed and honored to be teaming up with such amazing individuals and corporations. I have teared up much of recent in happiness.
On a personal level, I have grown to love more knowing that we truly have only but one life. I love. We love. We are the by-product of love. Really can not get better than that. Can it?! I mean, I think I have so many purple marks from pinching myself constantly asking if this is real.
To be part of these fighters’ journeys, and so many more, I am the lucky one. We are the lucky ones at Saxon/Hart.
Be Seen, Get Screened: What are your goals for the future of #BlankCancer and other disease awareness projects?
Heidi Burkhart: As I said before, our goals are education and awareness – especially for diseases, such as colon cancer. We’re excited to grow the campaign and work with likeminded individuals and companies to help make Saxon/Hart giving forward initiatives even that much more impactful.
Be Seen, Get Screened: Why do you think it’s important for people to be educated about the risk factors and symptoms of colon cancer, especially now that colon cancer incidence rates are rising for people under the age of 30?
Heidi Burkhart: To save a life. Ultimately, we want to educate and bring awareness, to save lives.
Be Seen, Get Screened: Will, what advice do you have for anyone currently battling colon cancer?
Will Lanier: Oh man. Anything I could say is going to sound so cliché. Having everyone in your ears and in your inbox telling you to stay positive, and that everything will be fine, is the most touching/annoying thing at the same time. Of course, positivity is needed throughout this process, but when you're in it, sometimes it’s the last thing you want.
My advice is to let people nurture you, no matter how hard that can be. Open yourself up to love and positivity even in your darkest days. And take it one day at a time. You will have bad days, but they will help you appreciate the good. I promise.
Be Seen, Get Screened: Do you have anything else to share with Be Seen, Get Screened?
Heidi Burkhart: Love vulnerably. I read once that no act of kindness can be done too soon. As much as it hurts to be let down, in hindsight, I am always proud of myself for loving vulnerably and for being there for others 110%, rather than scared of my feelings getting hurt.
To me, loving vulnerably means being there – putting your own needs aside for another. Send a handwritten note. Send balloons. Write “I love you” in the sky. There are so many ways to show one that you appreciate them. So many ways!
So I just say, do not forget to love vulnerably.
"At the end of the day, a life without love is a life without hope. Keep hope alive."