Ben Valence got roped into the world of oncology and GRYT Health when his sister and fellow GRYT Health Team Member, Jessica Valence got diagnosed with stage III colon cancer. When he learned of his little sister’s diagnosis, he had no idea just how much her diagnosis would affect his family and, on a broader scale, his own life.
Ben and his family live in Henrietta, New York. When they were younger, Ben and his wife lived in Brazil for 6 months doing missionary work. Brazil had a huge impact on their lives and it is still their favorite place in the world. They lived for part of that time on riverboats, sleeping in hammocks. They would wake up and smell fresh bread baking at their local bakery about a block away and would walk down to have fresh pastries for breakfast daily. Ben longs to visit the Grand Canyon and explore it thoroughly as he’s drawn to the immense size and broad biodiversity of the area.
Initially, Ben joined the GRYT Health team as a contractual researcher. Eventually he transitioned to helping out with conferences before joining the team permanently on a full-time basis and he is a Manager of Front End Development. He assists with a lot of things involving the various conferences that GRYT Health has a hand in coordinating and a lot of projects that involve our Community Team.
Ben has a liberal arts and Bible college background, but most of what he is currently doing is all self-taught skills. He worked in construction for a number of years doing a variety of things when he was younger and held a position with an organization in account receivable for 5 years once. He excelled at the position but he was not passionate about the work. Ben has also done a lot of youth pastoring and missionary work. Additionally, Ben is a certified barber. When he joined the GRYT Health team, Ben had been having problems with his shoulder, which inhibited him from doing his barbering. He was told he needed surgery, but because of his sister’s healthcare experiences and his uneasiness with surgery being the only option, Ben sought other opinions and was able to find another provider who was willing to work with him on non-surgical treatment options.
With having a strong foundation in his faith and religion, Ben is used to being able to love on people. He feels that his position with GRYT Health allows him to “love on people'' in different ways and give more people the kind of support that he was able to give to his sister. Maybe, he shared, some of those people don’t have people in their lives to love them through cancer, so he hopes he can help fill in those gaps. Ben was drawn to GRYT Health when Jessica started working with GRYT Health. He was really drawn to the culture and loves what GRYT Health stands for. Ben never wants anyone to feel as if they are alone in going through anything. It is what drives him to continue his work with GRYT Health and to help other people’s journeys be just a little bit better.
Ben is energized by doing the coding work that he does for GRYT Health. He feels like he can continue to learn and push his boundaries to learn new things while GRYT Health continues to build platforms and develop other opportunities to host virtual events with more organizations. The fact that all of the GRYT Health programs are able to be accessed by anyone at any time wherever they physically and mentally are at that moment is the real value in Ben’s eyes. The fact that he can have a small part in reaching someone with programming and support while they are laying in a hospital bed is what spurs him to continue in this field.
When it comes to his support system, his wife, children, parents and siblings top the list. They also have a German Shepard-Hound mix they rescued. His name is Hunter and his young family has really come to love and depend on Hunter.
While Ben had some extended family members - an aunt, grandfather and uncle - who had passed away from cancer, the biggest impact on his experience was his sister Jessica's diagnosis. Jessica is 3 years younger than Ben and it really hit him like a ton of bricks that baby sister came home one day and just casually announced that she had cancer.
Ben and his wife had been living in Pennsylvania and had just moved back to upstate New York to be closer to family with their twin boys. They had moved in with his parents to save money for a house. When Jessica received her diagnosis, she moved back home as well. They had quite a full house, which, fortunately, enabled the entire family to assist in the care of Jessica during the fight of her life.
In the beginning, Ben helped shuttle Jessica to and from work. He knew that she wasn’t feeling great so most of the time that they had together, they just hung out at home. His young twin boys learned to be very gentle with Aunt Jess and would snuggle with her and Pony Express notes from Jessica to the adults in the family when she needed items or assistance. By the end of Jessica’s chemo treatments, Ben saw his sister in a new light when he looked at her one day. She was just extremely skinny. All skin and bones. It was then that he started realizing the severity of her diagnosis.
It was the dead of winter and Jessica was always freezing. When he would play taxi to and from her work, he would wear shorts and a T-shirt while blasting the car’s heat with the driver’s window down. Jessica donned layers complete with a full winter coat, beanie and scarf. She was still freezing while he was wringing wet with sweat. It became a source of comedic relief during that time.
A few years removed from the initial diagnosis, Ben knows much more about cancer and his sister’s specific diagnosis than he did then. Jessica hid a lot of specific details from the family in order to keep them from worrying about her. Ben feels he knew that something wasn’t right, but he just focused on taking care of her and his boys.
Ben also notices a lot of the other things his sister continues to deal with now. She has ongoing appointments and testing that she goes through, she suffers from long-term effects from chemotherapy and is chronically fatigued.
While shocked with the diagnosis, Ben didn’t feel like it initially affected him very much until he saw how much weight she lost. Also, having twin toddlers at the time was a great distraction from everything for the entire family because they could just really focus on making sure that not much changed in the lives of the boys.
For Ben, the most challenging part of Jessica’s treatment was not being able to be a big brother by sweeping in to fix the situation. He had to learn to be in the moment and be there for her whenever she needed him. The only thing that he wishes he’d done differently is spend time actually sitting with her during treatments and helping with that more. However, Ben and Jessica’s father did accompany her to all of her treatments and he didn’t want to crowd the small area.
Ben’s favorite memories were previously mentioned, but he shared another with us. When Jessica began losing her hair, Ben was the one who assisted her in cutting her long locks off. Jessica had always loved her long hair and when it started falling out, Ben gave her a pixie cut while the family took pictures. It was a fun memory in the midst of a challenging act.
Ben continues to support and honor Jessica by being an ear to listen and a shoulder to cry on whenever his sister needs it. He talks with her about the inadequacies of insurance, allows her to vent about things and enjoys outdoors activities with her to distract her from the realities. They enjoy things like hiking and fishing together.
Inspired by Jessica and his own health experiences, those of the GRYT Health community and the COVID-19 pandemic, Ben has learned to overcome his discomfort in confrontation in order to speak up to make the lives of himself and others better, especially in the face of physical pains, mental and physical health and injustices. He says, “There are times that might be uncomfortable in speaking up or asking questions, but in the long run, that’s what makes you a better person.”
Ben enjoys spending time with his wife, twin boys and daughter playing Minecraft, camping, fishing, biking and participating in church activities. They are a big outdoors family and love relaxing in hammocks, a result of Ben and his wife’s time in Brazil. When he has the opportunity to sit down and be quiet for some amount of time, Ben also enjoys reading.