Though he had battled and overcome testicular cancer, Jeffrey Schwartz never felt a true connection to the cancer community until he visited a training summit hosted by one of the biggest names in the fight against the disease, Lance Armstrong.
Schwartz, 33, a Santa Monica resident and Lincoln Middle School teacher, was diagnosed with cancer three years prior to attending the Livestrong Summit in Austin, Texas in October 2006. The summit, hosted by cancer survivor and legendary cyclist Armstrong, was intended to teach the participating delegates about unmet needs in the fight against cancer and how to develop plans to address those needs.
Schwartz called the summit experience a “life-changing weekend,” as he had the opportunity to meet other cancer survivors and people who are working to promote cancer awareness and advocacy in a variety of ways.
Most important, Schwartz says the event gave him a new purpose in the role he could play in the battle against the deadly disease.
“I knew I wanted to do something but I didn’t know what before that weekend,” says Schwartz, who teaches eighth- grade U.S. history and Rock and Roll music history as an elective at Lincoln Middle School. “That’s where everything began for me.”
It was from the Livestrong Summit that Schwartz developed the idea for a support group and discussion forum for students and faculty members affected by cancer at his school. He called the program “Kids Livestrong” in recognition of Armstrong’s summit, and he envisioned creating a safe place for those affected by the disease to share their thoughts.
“As young adults dealing with the cancer experience, the immediate feeling is of isolation,” said Schwartz, who will enter his fifth year as a Lincoln teacher this fall. “I wanted to ensure that the students knew they were not alone.
“You can feel very helpless and passive at times, and I wanted to give the students an opportunity to become active and involved.”
Schwartz noted that once he presented the idea for the support group to his students, he learned that it was evident there was a need for the program among the faculty members as well.
Schwartz said he encouraged Kids Livestrong participants to take action by spreading the word about cancer awareness, conducting research and helping with fundraising efforts.
The program, which Schwartz says has created a stronger school community, has since raised several hundred dollars for the Lance Armstrong Foundation and helped distribute informational materials and cancer-related resources to about 3,000 people.
In recognition of Schwartz’s work to create a cancer support network and promote cancer awareness, the Lance Armstrong Foundation recently selected Schwartz to receive the 2008 Livestrong Award in Columbus, Ohio. Not only was Schwartz chosen for the award, but he was presented with it and personally acknowledged by fellow testicular cancer survivor Armstrong.
“It was one of the highlights of my life,” Schwartz said of meeting Armstrong. “I wouldn’t be doing this if it was not for his organization and his summit.”
Presenting the award to Schwartz, Armstrong said, “We felt that the things that they had done, the programs that were enacted, and the passion that he took back to his community made him worthy of the Livestrong Award.”
Schwartz said he was “deeply honored and truly humbled” to receive the award. The honor has influenced him to continue his efforts and work to get the Kids Livestrong program implemented at other schools in the state and around the country.
Originally from Madison, Wisconsin, Schwartz earned his undergraduate degree in political and religious studies from the University of Wisconsin. As someone who always enjoyed working with youths, Schwartz said he decided to become a teacher around the same time he was diagnosed with cancer.
In addition to his regular classes, Schwartz oversees an academic program for at-risk youths, teaches studio recording and music production and guides a current events club.
He was diagnosed with cancer when he was 27 years old, something that “blind-sided” him at such a young age. But he noted that he was fortunate to have been diagnosed with the disease in the early stages, and after surgery and radiation, he was able to recover.
After having defeated cancer, Schwartz said he “felt an obligation of the cured” to try to help others who were facing similar challenges.
As an educator, Schwartz believes one of his primary objectives is to raise awareness and make people understand that cancer is a disease that affects everybody.
“It’s come full circle for me because it started as one of the worst things that has ever happened to me and it evolved into one of the best things that has happened to me,” Schwartz said.