More than a Meal: Mac & Cheese Fest Supports Young Adult & Adolescent Cancer Research

2017 Mac and Cheese Festival

When Joe Apgar found out he had cancer, he was in college in Pennsylvania, four hours from his parents, alone in a rural hospital. His right testicle had gotten lumpy, like a marble, and he had gone for what he thought would be a quick visit to have it checked before he went out with friends that night. The hospital was too small to have an oncologist on site that day, so a doctor from a larger hospital nearby delivered his diagnosis by phone. He was 21 years old, and immediately, his plans for his life changed.

Kids? He was 21 and in college, and he wasn’t really thinking that way, but it didn’t matter: His cancer had already taken away his ability to have them.

Dating? Well, sure, he wanted to date. But to save his life, his doctors removed the afflicted testicle. He’d have something to explain, at a time in a man’s life when dating is hard enough.

School, internships, career? Of course. But cancer meant he now had to juggle diagnosis, treatment and his other responsibilities.

He, like so many others who are diagnosed with cancer at a young age, had to contend with his mortality at an age when he should have felt immortal.

It is a sad fact that cancer can and does strike teenagers and young adults. Cancer has become the number one disease killer in young adults, taking about 10,000 young adults each year. Cancer survival rates have improved for other age groups across the board, but for young adults, they have not improved nearly as well. Even when a young adult beats cancer, unique social issues await them: Survivors sometimes find it difficult to make friends, to date, to start careers and to get their finances back on track.

“People just don’t realize all the areas of your life that it affects,” said Mary Connolly, a sarcoma survivor, who found herself struggling to return to her “normal” life after treatment. “I started going to a support group six months after I was diagnosed, but it was about two years before I really started to process what had happened and put myself into counseling and realized that I was struggling with things in my life as a result of the diagnosis.”

Connolly and Apgar both are members of Next Gen James Ambassadors, a group of highly motivated young professionals who advocate for young adult cancer patients and survivors. The group’s members knew they had to do something to help address the gap in care and research for young adult cancer patients. So they started the Columbus Mac and Cheese Festival to raise money for research that will help those patients, programs that will educate them and support systems to carry them forward into their lives.

The festival returns October 6 to Easton Town Center, where the city’s best mac and cheese recipes come together for one important cause: Giving new hope to young adults with cancer. Tickets are on sale now, but we don’t expect them to last – last year’s festival sold out weeks before. (You can get tickets here; proceeds benefit research at the OSUCCC – James.)

“You have an opportunity to influence and make it better for people,” Apgar said, “Investing in this population is investing in our future.”