When Ruth Gilbert Crane ’93 wasn’t wearing her wig or earrings, she felt even more vulnerable than the breast cancer had already left her. Accessories allowed her to feel “normal,” and she knew she wasn’t alone. In 2008, Crane founded Ears To You, a jewelry donation program for women undergoing chemotherapy. Read Crane’s firsthand account of how her own battle with cancer has turned into a nonprofit pursuit.
After graduating from Lafayette in 1993, I went on to earn my master’s degree in higher education administration and student personnel at Kent State University. I married Travis Crane ’94 in a beautiful Christmas wedding in 1995. After grad school, I was hired as director of student activities/residence hall director at Otterbein College. I really liked my job at Otterbein and enjoyed working with the students, whether it was planning for campus entertainment or counseling them on a personal issue. I left Otterbein after my first child, Ryan, was born in 1999.
I became a stay-at-home mom to Ryan, brother Benjamin, who came along in 2001, and brother Gavin, born in 2007. We had a daughter, Colleen, in 2005, who was stillborn. It was through this tough experience that I became more sensitive to the challenges other people face in life. I loved being at home with the boys and dabbled in some part-time work projects like doing phone interviews for a large chemical company, running my own Mary Kay business, and babysitting. I also began volunteering with the local preschool PTA and was able to use my experience in education to plan projects and fundraisers as a community service co-chair. I also started to teach PSR (religion class) for our church in 2005, and have been doing that ever since.
My somewhat idyllic life came to a screeching halt in March 2008 when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. After feeling a lump in my left breast while still nursing Gavin, I began to wonder if it was just a nursing issue or something more. I waited a few months and then also felt a lump under my left armpit. Suddenly more alarmed, I went to my doctor to find out what was going on. After some testing and a biopsy, cancer was confirmed. It’s hard now to recall those days after being diagnosed because they were filled with uncertainty, fear, and dread. Even harder than being told you have cancer is telling your 6 ½- and 9-year-old sons that you have cancer. I began chemotherapy treatments in late March at the Cleveland Clinic, lost my hair two weeks later, and began the journey toward healing.
I decided early on, with the urging from family and friends, to stay as positive as I could and focus on healing. My mother-in-law said something to me right after I was diagnosed that stuck with me — “Don’t define yourself by the cancer.” In other words, I may be dealing with cancer, but I didn’t have to identify with it. I began blogging on caringbridge.org, which allowed me to post messages to friends and family who signed up for the site. I would write about my chemo experiences, funny anecdotes about wanting to rip off my wig in the middle of the store when it got too uncomfortable, and anything else I thought would be informative for my friends and family. I talked about how my faith was guiding me, strengthening me, and keeping me at peace during a really scary time. The best thing about this site was the comments that people posted back. Those kind, reassuring, positive words kept me going on the days that I was afraid or feeling down.
While being hospitalized for a possible infection in April 2008, I came up with an idea to help other women going through chemotherapy. I truly believe God inspired the idea, and I chose to run with it. I realized, as I sat in the hospital bed with my bandana on, that I felt “naked” without my wig, makeup, or earrings. I truly felt more attractive, more “normal” when I could accessorize. Ears To You was created to help other women deal with hair loss and provide them a sense of normalcy by giving them a pair of earrings each time they came in for a chemo treatment.
Ears To You started at the Cleveland Clinic in June 2008 on the day of my last chemo treatment. What a joyous day that was! The program was so enthusiastically received by the women in treatment that I knew I wanted to continue to collect and donate earrings for as long as I could make the program last!
I asked my friend Debbie Smith, who owns her own jewelry business, to help me with the project. We use the money we receive to purchase lead- and nickel-free earrings that are really cute and fashionable. All of the earrings we receive are placed onto earring cards that say “Ears To You,” put into containers, and delivered to the two hospitals where the program is being offered, the Cleveland Clinic and Akron General Hospital, which came on board in December 2008. To date, over 1,500 earrings have been donated to the two hospitals, and the need for more earrings is constant. We collect new earrings only to eliminate any possible infection that older earrings might cause a patient, and the styles we receive are as varied as the women who choose them. This is what is great about the program! The variety is elemental to the success of Ears To You.
Each hospital has a different way of dispensing the earrings. At the Cleveland Clinic, a social worker brings in the container to the patient nearly every time she comes for a chemotherapy treatment. At Akron General, the nurses use the earrings to cheer up a patient who is having a rough day or for a patient’s last chemo treatment. It is wonderful to hear comments from the patients. “What a great distraction it was to be able to choose a cute pair of earrings” or “I love the earrings I got from the program, and they are the only ones I can wear right now!” It is my goal that the earrings give the women undergoing chemo treatments a chance to do something fun, something just for them, something that will make them feel good about themselves at a time when life can seem uncertain and even scary.
In order to extend Ears To You to other hospitals, we need the support of more individuals, businesses, and organizations. I have applied for nonprofit status from the IRS and am awaiting approval. If I get the nod, any donations given to Ears To You will be tax-deductible, which is huge for gaining more financial support through things like company-matching donation programs. I’ve also set up a web site, earstoyou.org, to explain the program, my story, and hopefully inspire women going through chemo to feel good about themselves.
I am very excited for the future. After a double mastectomy and radiation, I’m cancer-free and feeling great. I try really hard to stay positive and not worry about my frequent check-ups. Keeping that optimism going requires work, faith, and support that I’ve received from my family and friends. I’m so blessed to have people cheer me on and lift me up when I need that boost. I’m also excited that I was interviewed by Ladies’ Home Journal for a piece called “Never Underestimate the Power of a Woman” that will highlight Ears To You. It’s slated for the June issue, and I am anxiously awaiting the exposure this will bring to such a wonderful cause.