During her battle with breast cancer, Mailet Lopez was surrounded by a warm circle of family and friends. But there were still moments when she felt terribly alone.
“I had nights when I was crying, trying to figure out how this happened, and what it meant for the future, and that’s not something that they could really understand,” Mailet says. “That’s where you need someone who’s gone through the same thing.”
It just so happened that Mailet, 36, had built a successful career in web design and development. So she took her professional expertise and used it to create a social network for people dealing with cancer called IHadCancer.com. The online support system helps connect cancer fighters, survivors and supporters in 62 countries.
Mailet was just 33 when she was diagnosed with stage 2B breast cancer, after discovering several lumps during a self-exam. She was on vacation with family in Florida when she got the news, which devastated her relatives still reeling from the death of a beloved aunt from ovarian cancer a year prior.
“When we heard the diagnosis, my sister and cousin just wanted to stay in bed— and I wanted to go to the beach and have fun,” Mailet says. “I decided that as much as I could, I was not going to have cancer run my life. I wanted to be strong and positive.”
After surgery, Mailet chose an alternative therapy called Insulin Potentiation Therapy (IPT), which administers a lower dose of chemo drugs along with insulin. (“My cousin was excited when my hair started falling out—she said that must mean it’s working,” Mailet says with a laugh.) She’d learned about IPT by chance through a breast cancer survivor her age who’d undergone the treatment, and once it proved successful for Mailet, she found that she herself was a sought-after resource.
“I was getting phone calls from other patients of my doctor, wanting to know about IPT,” she says. “My business partner told me, ‘You should start a blog and share all this information with people.’ But I wanted to take that a step further.”
Mailet’s vision was not only to be able to share her story, and help others share theirs, but specifically to create a platform that would allow people to log on and find others in similar situations—other cancer patients nearby, survivors of the same type of cancer, people who had chosen the same treatment, and more.
“It’s not about who had the worst treatment or the craziest type of cancer,” Mailet says. “Any experience you’ve had with cancer could really help someone else. No matter how small or insignificant you think your story is, the odds are that there is someone who could benefit from hearing what you learned through the process.”
For instance, one survivor shared that she schedules her appointments with doctors early in the morning so she’ll have a better chance of getting test results back the same day.
A journal function on the site also allows members to chronicle their personal stories, past or present, and it can be updated regularly if they want to keep other members apprised of their progress. Friends and family members can also join as “supporters” and view their loved one’s journal or exchange practical tips of their own for taking care of someone with cancer.
For Mailet, who’s now three years from her diagnosis, the experience of building IHadCancer.com and sharing her story with others has been personally cathartic. But more importantly, it’s given her a higher purpose.
“This site is not about me,” Mailet says. “It’s about helping all these people who feel alone to get the support they need.”