The idea came to Haley Bellows’ mind in a moment of despair, and she never imagined how her simple message would catch fire and inspire.
Bellows, a 2010 Kalama High School graduate, was sitting in her friend Rachel Morrell’s room at George Fox University in Newberg, Ore., this spring, exhausted and angry that her lymphoma had returned. Morrell, who owns an online screen printing business, asked if she could make Bellows a T-shirt to make her feel better. But what should it say?
“All I can think right now is ‘Eff Cancer.’ I’m just so frustrated,” Bellows recalled in a telephone interview Sunday.
So Morrell went ahead and designed the shirt, mostly as a joke. Unknown to Bellows, she posted pictures online and noted the proceeds would help pay for Bellows’ treatment, and she asked if anyone wanted one.
Within hours, the 20 shirts sold out. Bellows said she didn’t even know they were for sale until a friend contacted her when she was studying in a coffee shop. Now she’s running a growing business that’s capitalizing on the collective rage against disease.
Bellows, 21, has sold about 600 shirts, and orders keep streaming in through Morrell’s online Etsy store. The first ones were mostly from the George Fox campus, but orders are coming in nationwide, and a couple even came from Europe, she said.
“It’s really awesome that it’s taken off this much,” she said.
Bellows keeps 60 percent of the profits, which she uses to help pay the out-of-pocket costs for her treatment not covered by her health insurance. Last week, she received a $1,900 check for the sales, which covered an overnight chemotherapy treatment, two scans and a white blood cell treatment, she said.
George Fox is a Christian university, and Bellows said she worried people would be offended by the provocative T-shirts. A student anonymously posted those concerns on an online forum, which sparked a lengthy discussion, she said.
Most people were supportive, Bellows said. A friend who bought a shirt told her, “Cancer sucks, and I hate cancer, and if I had the chance to throw every curse word at it, I would. And if I can help a friend, great.”
Bellows even has a ready-made response for curious children who don’t understand the message. “EFF Cancer,” she explains, is short for Every Family Fights Cancer.
Regardless, the language on the shirts is nothing compared to the disease, she said.
“If you think (the message is) vulgar and cancer’s not, your thinking is a little off,” Bellows said.
Bellows was originally diagnosed with lymphoma, a type of blood cancer, in April 2012. She had surgery to remove cysts and did two months of oral chemotherapy, and doctors told her the cancer was in partial remission.
Three months later, the cancer returned, so Bellows went back to the treatment. This April, one year after her original diagnosis, the cancer returned again. Bellows then opted to undergo an aggressive, intravenous chemotherapy, which required five to 12-hour treatments every week that left her exhausted.
At Kalama High, Bellows was an all-conference shortstop in softball and also played varsity volleyball and basketball. She was on the George Fox softball team her freshman year before a back injury sidelined her for the whole season. Because of chemo, she has no energy for sports.
“That’s definitely been one of the hard things. Sometimes I forget what it’s like to be active, and I love being active,” Bellows said.
Bellows is studying social work at George Fox with the goal of working in a hospital with cancer patients, and she has a minor in youth ministry. She’s had to push back graduation one semester until December 2014, and she said her faith has helped her cope.
“Although there’s this evil thing, I know that God didn’t give it to me. My faith is what keeps me going and getting up out of bed every morning,” she said.
Her friends say they’re impressed with how Bellows has handled herself over the past year.
“I think she’s a really tough kid. Apart from that, she’s surrounded herself with a lot of really wise people that are able to care for her in a variety of ways. People like her and want to be around her,” said Morrell, whose husband was Bellows’ boss when she was a resident assistant last year.
With the treatments, doctor visits and physical exhaustion, cancer is ruling Bellows’ life now, and she said she’s tired of it. The T-shirts are a welcome distraction, she said.
“It makes me feel very supported. It’s something that I really look forward to doing. Even though it’s related to cancer, it’s a fun thing to do,” Bellows said.