photographs by Jane Schneider
Emily Tickle Thomas patiently winds past the battalion of farm animals her four boys have laid in formation on the living room floor. She pads down the hallway of baby pictures and into a bedroom where she opens up a converted closet. Inside, a well-organized wall space and desk serve as her home office.
When she comes here, she puts aside the busyness and normalcy of raising a family to think about those grappling with something far more urgent: the diagnosis of cancer.
As the founder of The Cancer Card Xchange, Thomas sends out gift cards every week to cancer patients across the country. Most go to strangers, friends of a friend, people who have heard of Emily’s effort and want to help someone in need. Judging from the thank-you notes that hang on the wall, many recipients have been touched by her cards, emblazoned with a heart and Emily’s crisp signature scrolled at the bottom.
“Sometimes I think it’s crazy,” she says, glancing up at the letters. “I’ve got some 300 people’s cancer stories in my head.” But she lives to honor those stories.
Today, two $100 gift cards will go to teenage girls who are battling brain cancer. The idea is to give the recipient a lift, a nice dinner out or a few extra dollars towards necessities. What surprises her is how many people need those cards to cover basics such as groceries or electric bills.
Emily's upbeat personality grows more contemplative when she tells me she's one of the lucky ones. While pregnant in 2007 with her youngest son, Webb, she discovered an unusual growth on her tongue. Just days after Mother’s Day, test results confirmed her doctor’s suspicion; Emily had oral cancer.
In the midst of selling their house and moving to Collierville, life suddenly became a whirl of medical terms, moving boxes, and doctor appointments. Her husband’s parents scooped up the boys so they could travel to Houston for treatment. “People were doing all kinds of wonderful things during that time,” she says. “Everyone was bending over backwards to help us.”
Because of her pregnancy, the doctors had to take extra precautions. A second surgery would determine whether the cancer had spread to her lymph nodes. Emily remembers she awoke from that surgery “grabbing my neck and checking the baby monitor.” Much to her relief, both were normal; the tumor was gone.
A year later, when a college friend was diagnosed with bladder cancer, Emily immediately sent out word to everyone she knew and soon presented the family with $1,000 in gift cards. “As my friend was getting sicker, it clicked,” Emily says, “I knew I could do this.”
So to celebrate her 40th birthday, this busy mom launched her nonprofit, The Cancer Card Xchange, passing forward the kindness she had received. Two years later, she’s mailed out more than $34,000 in gift cards. Her concept works because it enables donors to do for others at a time when most feel powerless to make a difference. Her brush with cancer taught her a simple truth, “Life is short. You just have to act."
To donate, go to Cancercardxchange.org.