Vanessa Ghigliotty: Five lessons for new advocates

This article was written by Vanessa Ghigliotty, a stage IV colon cancer survivor.


I was always a fighter. Fearless to advocate for the things I loved or believed in, my family called me the lawyer. While earning my bachelor’s degree in mass communications, I took a media law class and I fell in love with it. I knew I had to go to law school, but instead I was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer right after college graduation.

Fast forward through years of chemo, multiple surgeries, my battle with cancer, and I am the victor. But am I still me? Yes, but now I have even more passion and a tremendous need to fight for other young adults. They should not have to go through what I didthus an advocate was born.

I’ve had the honor of training new advocates on several occasions, and now I get to share some of the lessons I’ve learned with you.  

  • Your story matters! Our politicians are inundated with paid lobbyists on daily basis. But when you advocate and tell your story, you make our issue real. You give life to statistics. When your elected official has to vote on a new policy, it will be your story that shapes their decision. As such, make your story compelling, with succinct language, so it sticks in their head.  

  • Passion. It is your passion that will keep you going when it seems like every possibility has been exhausted. Your passion for this cause will keep going until you find a way or find a person who can help you get the job done.
  • Develop relationships.  This is vital in developing your advocacy efforts. Learning who can open doors for you and help you achieve goals is key. Let’s say you need a PET scan and your insurance company has denied you several times. Along with appealing your insurance company’s decision, it’s helpful to include a supportive letter from your local politician, your oncologist, your surgeon, your therapist, your social worker, and others. It shows that you are doer and will not give up. Insurance companies, politicians, and political staff members notice these things.

  • Get on the list. Politicians always have local offices. Make sure you get on their email list and meet them at their public events. Make yourself known to their staff. Send thank-you cards and make follow-up calls when they supported your cause. Also make contact when they don’t support you, but express your disappointment respectfully.
  • Be prepared and be unafraid to ask questions. To get things moving in your direction, know ahead of time who you are dealing with and what position they take on our issue. Don’t be afraid to ask them questions. It shows them you care, and knowledge truly is power.

When something like cancer touches our lives or our loved ones lives, it becomes personal. There is no force that can move mountains like the passion that stems from something personal. Use this passion in your advocacy efforts and watch things happen!

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