SALT LAKE CITY — Becky Anderson was running around at home playing laser tag with her two sons, 4-year-old Eli and 2-year-old Isaac, when the phone rang. It was the doctor returning her call. She had undergone a lumpectomy three days earlier and came out of the surgery with a cough.
The doctor on the other line instructed her to see her primary care doctor if the cough continued. In that moment, Anderson remembers instinctively sitting down to prepare for what would come next: “Becky, I don’t know how to tell you this. …”
This was the same doctor who had convinced her that the lump forming in her breast was benign and that “I should get on with my life and just be happy,” she said. Now, there was concern in his voice.
“... You have cancer.”
“It hit like no other statement had hit in my life,” recalled Anderson, who was then diagnosed with stage-three breast cancer. “I felt like I was going to throw up. I was panicked. I didn’t know what to do. From that moment forward, it was just nutty.”
“Nutty” is the way Anderson describes her cancer journey that began with the diagnosis in January 2010. But thanks to support from family and friends, Anderson, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was able to overcome her life-threatening illness.
Anderson now works alongside her sister, Brenda Smith, to run Anything for a Friend, a nonprofit that has raised nearly $2 million and helped 37 participants since its humble beginning that started with a community fundraiser for Anderson.
“God is in the details of our life,” said Anderson, a native of Layton, Utah. “He is absolutely concerned about our heartbreak and our heartaches. He sends tender mercies if we’re watching. I will consider myself one of the most fortunate people on the planet because on a daily basis, I get to see his tender mercies and the true goodness of his kids.”
Brenda Smith also remembers how she felt when she found out her sister, Becky Anderson, was diagnosed with cancer. Thirteen months to the day apart, Smith and Anderson have an “amazing and unbreakable” relationship, she said.
“She’s really my best friend,” Smith said. “I just felt like, ‘I really want to do something to help.’ It’s hard for me to sit and it’s hard for me to ask for help for things, so it was really easy for me to be like, ‘OK we’re going to do this for you.’”
Smith thought of Anderson’s two young boys at home and her husband who was trying to provide. She called Denise Parker, Anderson’s closest friend at the time, who was a three-time Olympian in archery and had experience with a community fundraiser.
“We threw our ideas back and forth and she said, ‘I have a wonderful idea. We’re going to shave our heads and have people pay to watch,’” Smith recalled, laughing. And she and Parker did.
Though Anderson initially struggled with the idea of the event, thinking there couldn't be anything worse than people pitying her, "I soon found out that there cannot be givers if there are not receivers," she said. "And as gracious as we can be as givers, we have to be humble enough to be just as gracious of a receiver."
Anderson's fundraiser turned into a spaghetti dinner auction. “Really, we were just making it up as we went along for that first one,” Smith said. “The whole idea was that I may not know 1,000 people per se, but I know at least 20 people, and those 20 people know 20 people.”
And each one of those people has a different "anything" to give, Smith explained, as one person might be able to give service while another can give financially or donate something that can be auctioned off.
“That was how we created the name ‘Anything for a Friend,’ because I would have and would do anything for her, for my best friend," she said.
More than 1,000 people attended Anderson’s event in April 2010 and raised more than $30,000. Anderson was touched and knew she needed to pay it forward. In the six months that followed, Anderson, Smith and Parker helped organize fundraisers for five more people with cancer and raised $113,000 for treatment, according to the Deseret News. The organization continued to grow.
“Through our faith and our hearts wanting to help people and give back to the community, this was our way,” Smith said. “This was our way to give back.”
Part of Anderson’s treatment included 16 rounds of chemotherapy. One of the hardest times she remembers is half way through the treatment when she was hit with the “Red Devil,” the heaviest dose of medication her doctors had at the time, she said. She lost her hair, eyebrows and all of her eyelashes except for three, but remained upbeat going into the next scan.
She recalls sitting on the exam table in the hospital room with her husband, mom and dad. As the doctor walked into the room, her optimism faded as she could tell by the expression on his face that the results wouldn’t be good news.
“I sat there and in the most informal prayer that I ever offered in my life, I turned to my Father and said, ‘If this is going to be my exit, I need you to help me help them,’” Anderson said. “For the first time in the journey, I paused and just said, ‘I don’t want this to be about me anymore. If your will is that I am not to be here, then help me prepare them —my boys, my husband, my mom and dad, my sister —help me prepare them for what’s ahead.’”
Anderson was told that, despite the heavy medication, the tumor was unaltered. Nothing had changed. Anderson knew her situation was grave as she watched the oncologist cry.
She remembers her mom choking back sobs and her husband, “trying in his engineering way to figure out how he was going to make this right.”
In that moment, a wave of peace enveloped her. “That peace never left me,” she said. “The verbage behind that peace was, ‘It’s going to be OK.’ I knew, given what I just heard, that OK for me or any other person doesn’t mean you’re going to be healed physically. OK meant I am going to be OK and I am in my Maker’s hands.”
Anderson felt the Spirit confirm that they needed to stay the course with her medication. Though she had a near-deadly reaction to the next round of chemo, the tumor was completely obliterated, and for the first time in 11 months, Anderson learned she was operable. She underwent a mastectomy.
Days after the surgery and scans, her husband received a call from the doctor with the results from the pathology report. Anderson anxiously watched as he reacted to the conversation.
“This big, burly man, this engineer of mine, just slid down to his knees and was sobbing like a baby. For me, I thought it was more bad news,” Anderson said. “So I just crawled into his lap … he just cried for probably three minutes. He wasn’t able to say a single thing. Then he paused and said, ‘Beck, it’s gone. You have complete clinical response.’”
In a complete miracle, one even the oncologist said “should not have happened in this circumstance,” Anderson was cancer-free.
Anything for a Friend
Now, eight years later, Anything for a Friend is currently helping its 38th recipient feel the hope Anderson felt during her treatment. The nonprofit organization is run by a board of former recipients as well as family members and friends of former recipients. Everyone involved volunteers their time and no one is paid, Smith said. Smith, a development director at Weber State University, works as the co-founder and Anderson, a clinical social worker, serves as the executive director.
“It’s been interesting because now I can be in a situation and say, “I really do know how these people are feeling,’” Anderson said. Her message for the recipients is that even though it’s uncomfortable to be a receiver, “you are being used as an instrument to bring good things into your friends' and family’s lives.” And one day, they, too, will be able to pay it forward.
Todd White, Anything for a Friend’s 21st recipient, was diagnosed with cancer in 2011, just a week before his wife gave birth to their fourth child. He was nominated for an Anything for a Friend event by his wife’s friend from high school.
White’s event held in 2012, similar to many other Anything for a Friend events, was a dinner with a live and silent auction, bake sale and kids' corner. It was an experience he described as “nothing short of a miracle” that impacted his testimony of the importance of service.
“It’s hard to describe the feeling when you know you’re carrying this massive load around and you know it’s something you’re going to have to carry for years and years and years,” White said. “And they just come along and magically erase that for you.”
White, a West Point, Utah, resident and now a father of five, has been on the board for Anything for a Friend for a year and a half. Spending time with those involved in the organization, like Anderson and Smith, has changed his attitude about life and inspires him to seek out others’ needs.
“You see humanity in a different perspective,” he said. “You go to these events and see kids that are sick that are the same age as your kids and you see what their family is going through. All of a sudden your trials don’t look quite as intense as you thought they were, your little troubles that you’re facing in life. There is always someone who has it worse.”
Anderson said she knows a loving Father in Heaven “placed this invading dark and yucky thing called cancer inside my body because he wanted to magnify my platform." For her, the greatest message of Anything for a Friend is that God loves his children.
“I would just love to have people know if they could pause for a moment and feel and sense his tender mercy, maybe especially in the middle of all this hard stuff, then we will inherently become who we were designed to become," she said. "And that doesn’t happen without hard.”