12 Months of Service: How One Family Chose to Deal with a Terminal Cancer Diagnosis

Contributed By Aubrey Eyre, Church News staff writer

  • 27 November 2018

Annette Ferran (left) with her two youngest children after assembling the wristbands they used to raise donations for their October service project.  Photo courtesy of the Ferran family.

Article Highlights

  • After a terminal cancer diagnosis, one woman turned to service for relief.

“We wanted to turn this into something where we can focus on the needs of others.” —Annette Ferran

When Annette Ferran, a member of the Hidden Valley Stake in Draper, Utah, first heard the news that her cancer was terminal, she knew she had a decision to make.

“The choice wasn’t ‘Are you going to have cancer or not have cancer?’ It was ‘How are you going to react to having it? Are you going to be sad and fall apart and be angry, or are you going to trust God and be positive and grateful for the days you have?’” Ferran said in a recent interview with the Church News. “It has to be a conscious decision, and it becomes a daily thing.”

After first being diagnosed with adenocarcinoma (stomach cancer) in 2016, Ferran and her family made the decision to fight the cancer. And after three rounds of chemotherapy, a surgery that removed about 90 percent of her stomach, and one more round of chemo for good measure, all the tests came back positive. For a brief time, it seemed that Ferran had beaten the odds.

But when a biopsy came back in August 2018 telling her that the cancer had migrated to her colon and had spread in such a way that her diagnosis was now terminal, Ferran and her family made two life-changing decisions.

Time to turn outward

First, as a family, they opted to not attempt treatment.

“We decided as a family that it is better to have a short life with high quality,” Ferran said. “We kind of just put it in Heavenly Father’s hands and however it plays out, we’ll be good with it.”

Second, they decided to turn their focus away from their own trials. When doctors told Ferran that the average life expectancy for someone with her diagnosis is 12 months, a plan developed amongst the Ferran family.

“I felt like we had to focus our lives on something besides cancer for the next 12 months or however long I have,” Ferran said. “So we decided to put our efforts toward something else because there are a lot of people out there who have it worse than us. … We wanted to turn this into something where we can focus on the needs of others.”

A designed quote from Annette Ferran was put together for the Ferran family’s 12 months of service projects by their collaborator Piper and Scoot in Draper, Utah. Image courtesy of Piper and Scoot.

Ashley Sylvester, Ferran’s oldest daughter, said her mother has always been a service-oriented person, so it didn’t come as a surprise that just hours after being told she had months left to live, she started thinking of ways to help others in need.

“The first thing that came to her mind was that she wanted to turn this really awful thing into something for us to focus on something else more positive. It started with wanting to do something for Christmas. … She wanted us to focus on minimalism and sacrifice and to donate what we would normally spend to a good cause that would help somebody that needed it,” Sylvester said. “And then I don’t know exactly how it went from there to 12 months of service, but as a family, we wanted to turn this into something that could withstand the year of hardship that we’re about to go through and give us something positive to focus on.”

12 months of service

With the goal of 12 months of service, the family began brainstorming various projects, causes, or people they could help. Before they realized it, they had a list of things they wanted to do and had jumped into their first month of service.

Using Sylvester’s social media skills and the help of friends who offered to shoot photos and videos to help promote their projects, the family launched a Facebook page to help boost community involvement in their projects and started reaching out for their designated projects.

They began in October by partnering with a group called the Shine Project to raise money to help first-generation college students who struggle to make ends meet while in school.

For the month of November, they decided to collect winter coats to donate to refugees in the Salt Lake Valley, and when a local retail business learned of their efforts, it decided to sponsor the project for the month.

Allie Middleton, a friend of the Ferran family and owner of a retail store in Draper, Utah, said she knew immediately when she heard about the project that she wanted her business to get involved and help.

Noting the reach that her company has through their customers, Middleton said she hoped the sponsorship of her company would help expand the project and get more of the community involved in local service efforts.

“We really strive as a family to serve because it helps us be closer to our Savior,” Middleton said, noting that they try to carry that over into their business as well.

Since getting to know Ferran, Middleton said that she has come to know her as one of the most selfless people she has ever met. “And I don’t say that lightly,” Middleton said.

And although the project of collecting coats this month is only halfway done, Middleton said she has been impressed by how many donations they have received already, and she is looking forward to helping the Ferrans with future projects.

Annette Ferran with some of the coats the Ferran family received as donations for their November service project.

In December, the family will be partnering with the Hayes Foundation, an organization that helps support families who have children with cancer.

“It’s the project that is closest to her heart,” Sylvester said of her mom, who personally selected that project. “It is also the only thing we are doing that is related to cancer.”

As Sylvester explained it, their family feels lucky to be in a position where they don’t have serious financial worries when it comes to dealing with cancer, so they feel it is important to reach out and help those who may not be as fortunate in similar circumstances.

“My mom is a really incredible person. You don’t have to spend very much time with her to realize that she is different in a good way,” Sylvester said. “She loves and cares about everyone, and she has a really strong testimony. She has this unwavering faith that everything will make sense eventually, even though it’s hard right now.”

In the months following the new year, the family’s projects will vary in size and focus and will include things like blood drives, assembling backpack meals with the Utah Food Bank for schoolchildren who face hunger, and other localized efforts that focus less on donations and more on raising awareness for community needs in their surrounding areas.

“We are choosing to make this into a positive thing, and to see her choosing to be positive through this is a making a huge impact,” Sylvester said of the projects so far and how people have responded to her mom’s efforts. “I think this will be an amazing legacy for her.”

Youth groups from the Draper 5th Ward assembled to help collect coat donations for the Ferran family’s November project.

Relying on faith

For the Ferran family, serving others in their time of trial is the perfect way to draw closer to the Lord and to take the focus off of their own worries.

“We’re just trying to live each day the best we can and try not to worry about the future a ton because the ‘what-ifs’ can consume your life. Whatever complications come, we’ll deal with those as they come,” Ferran said.

Throughout all the stress and worry of their situation, Sylvester said her mom has been the one guiding them through it. “We have just been able to follow her lead in this hard time, which is amazing,” Sylvester said.

But for Ferran, she said she finds strength in her family and their combined faith.

“We rely on the blessing of faith and prayer daily,” Ferran said. “We rely on the knowledge that we will see each other after this life.”

The Ferran family left to right: Parker Ferran, Bronson Ferran, Andrea Ferran, Troy Ferran, Annette Ferran, Alexa Ferran, Ashley Sylvester, Zachary Sylvester.