Written by: Claire Pfarr

June 29, 2023

A Q&A with Ashlee Cramer, Circles facilitator and cancer caregiver

As we close out Cancer Survivors Awareness Month, we’re excited to share a recent conversation with one of our facilitators, Ashlee Cramer. Ashlee’s story is both heartbreaking and inspiring, and we know you’ll enjoy getting to know her and hearing about how she finds joy in helping others. 

1. Tell us about yourself and why you’re passionate about mental health and Circles. 

My name is Ashlee Cramer. I was a dancer (on Broadway!), then a singer, then an early childhood educator. I wrote the Zumbini program for Zumba fitness and had a wonderful career.  I was married and we had three beautiful children. Life was good! Then, in 2014 my husband was diagnosed with large b-cell lymphoma. It was a shock. It was a “treatable cancer,” but after 17 months he died at home in hospice care with the three kids and me hugging him, holding him, and telling him we loved him. It was hard. It was painful. But we kept going.

The mental struggle was real, but the kids and I supported each other as much as we could. In 2020, during the COVID lockdown, my son Michael started feeling tired. We thought he was anemic, or maybe he had COVID. A blood test led to a bone marrow biopsy and the diagnosis of an extremely rare and aggressive blood cancer. He went through chemo, radiation, a bone marrow transplant, and so many complications. I quit my job and gave up my career to be beside him 24/7. I could not believe we were going through cancer again so soon. 

Now, three years later, Michael is still facing many complications but he is alive and both of us have found a strong purpose in advocating, sharing our story, and lifting and inspiring others. We have a podcast together–Michael and Mom Talk Cancer, and we have started giving speeches at cancer events. We also both lead support groups on Circles! This story could have been the worst thing ever. It could have been a catastrophe. A reason to mourn and live in suffering. But we have found that helping others has helped us so much. Our mantra was, “helping others is the best way to help yourself.”  And love. And connection. While it’s not always easy, we are blessed with a huge community of support and realize how connection has truly saved us. We are also lucky to have each other. 

When Circles came along in the Fall of 2022, Michael and I both jumped on the opportunity to connect with our community, to facilitate and listen, and sometimes laugh and cry. He leads a group for cancer survivors, and I lead one for caregivers. It is my PASSION! The group is wonderful for everyone who joins, there’s no judgment, no blaming, no shaming, and no trying to fit in. We all just belong. I’m so honored to be there each and every week! It’s such a gift in my life. I have a group of consistent caregivers who show up and give each other the love and support they need and deserve. 

2. You’re hosting an upcoming session on Coping for Cancer Caregivers. Do you have any personal experiences or thoughts you’d like to share on the challenges cancer caregivers face?

It can be so lonely to be a caregiver of a loved one with cancer. Cancer itself is lonely, but often the caregiver is navigating family, work, PLUS the patient and advocating for them. It’s a space that sometimes gets forgotten. We worry about the patient, of course. We should! But caregivers often put their own lives to the side. I’ve been there and am still there. Friends who haven’t been through it try to be supportive, but sometimes it’s just beyond their comprehension. Everyone tells you to take care of yourself, but it’s just not that easy. The oxygen mask definitely goes on the patient first. But often we as caregivers forget to breathe.  

3. What advice do you have for those who are supporting loved ones through cancer treatment?

My biggest advice is to find someone you can talk to. Someone who understands, or who at least can empathize (not sympathize). I’d love to be able to say “take care of yourself.” But as I said above, it is not that easy! I will say, “be easy on yourself.” There is no way to be and do everything. We cannot continue our full-time life plus be the perfect caregiver. It’s also not always a perfect balance–sometimes there’s give and take. It’s okay if you can’t do everything, and know that you can (and should) ask for help. Often we think we’re the caregiver so we’re responsible for all the “helping,” and that means we can’t ask for help ourselves. But we need it! Even a shower helps (ha)! Or walk outside. A “pocket of peace.” A moment of breathing. 

4. Tell us a little bit about hosting sessions on Circles. What’s the most rewarding experience you’ve had so far?

I love it with my whole self! I’ve met and connected with so many beautiful humans. Most of us don’t live in the same area, but we’re so connected by our experiences. We talk about caregiving and about cancer, but we also just talk about life. It’s truly wonderful to belong and have a shared understanding. I feel like we’ve all opened up so much to each other, and in my almost nine months of hosting this room, I’ve never felt judged. I think the shared energy has given us all so much hope. We feed each other with shared experience, and that makes all of us less lonely.

5. Is there anything else you’d like to share?

I just want to say that connection really is one of the top human needs. A Harvard study that spans the last 85 years has shown that the biggest factor in health, happiness, and longevity is relationships and connection. The Harvard study provides it, and I certainly agree!

If you’d like to hear directly from Michael or Ashlee, download the Circles app and join one of their groups any time!