This Trailblazers series takes a look at the pivotal milestones that make up the life trails of inspiring women from a diverse array of backgrounds and experiences. We all know what social media profiles display about the end results women have achieved. This series is intended to take a deeper, more authentic look at the journeys they have taken to get there.
Kathleen Brown is the founder and CEO of buddhi, the digital platform reimagining support for people coping with cancer. After surviving a bleak childhood cancer prognosis and the ensuing trauma of recovery, Kathleen has dedicated much of her life to helping other cancer patients and survivors. In addition to this mission-driven work, she is a lover of travel, live music and community, and the proud mother of a Goldendoodle, Penelope.
After learning more about the trail that Kathleen has blazed, I got the chance to ask her some questions.
Rebekah Bastian: You’ve been really open about the trauma you experienced from milestones such as surviving cancer, sexual assault and mental health challenges. How have these acts of owning your story helped you to heal?
Kathleen Brown: For too long, I felt overwhelming shame and self-loathing as a result of buried trauma from my past. I had been conditioned from a young age to serve as a beacon of hope for others–this “survivor” who made it through cancer treatment as a teenager who went on to raise millions of dollars for cancer organizations like St. Jude (which saved my life). While that is true, I had to reckon with all of the physical, mental and emotional side effects that I never found space to talk about, so I could process and heal.
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While carrying all of that weight, only a few years after treatment ended, I was given a date rape drug by an acquaintance at the start of my freshman year of college and lost full control of what he did to me. This too had physical and mental effects that followed me for over a decade.
When I heard stories from other women, like Fatima Ali, Suleika Jaouad, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, Chanel Miller and others, I realized that I wasn’t alone, and slowly but surely started to open up about the struggles that I had previously carried alone. Each time I got over the fear of what people would think of the real me, I felt more comfortable in my own skin. I also saw how that created space for others to say, “me too.” It also opened me up to accept forms of therapy that I was unable to access before. I’ve come to realize that sharing your authentic self is an incredible gift to yourself and others.
Bastian: A lot of folks might assume that news of being cancer free would fill you with relief. What does that experience actually feel like, for you and members of the buddhi community that have shared their stories?
Brown: Well, back in 1995 not only were we not talking about mental health, but I was conditioned with platitudes from everyone around me–like many patients–to stay strong, be positive and fight hard. I felt like a proverbial mascot for everyone in my support system. So I bottled up feelings of sadness, anger, isolation, fear, loss–you name it–and instead of outwardly expressing them, they drove me to the point of suicidal ideation after treatment ended. It was not until decades later that I learned how common this is; in fact cancer patients have a 4x higher suicide risk than the average person. I’m determined to be part of the solution to reimagine cancer support so this is no longer the case.
When you finish cancer treatment, it is a sigh of relief for everyone but the patient (and, generally, their caregivers). While everyone around you wants to celebrate “the end,” it is oftentimes a complete shock when you’re overwhelmed and unprepared for the aftermath. This is also when people feel even further disconnected from their support systems, which exacerbates the struggle for many. If you think about it from a stress response perspective, this is like the dust settling after a fight or flight response, when your body and mind are going haywire after being solely focused on getting to this finish line–which often feels like winning the lotto and getting paid in counterfeit bills. Many people don’t talk about these private struggles to family and friends, which is why community support can be so helpful to open up with other people who empathize and understand.
Bastian: How did you decide to take the leap from a successful nonprofit development career to starting your own company, and what has that journey been like?
Brown: The idea for buddhi had been germinating for many years, as I got to know thousands of people impacted by cancer through my work with St. Jude and other non-profit organizations and heard many of the same pain points I experienced as a patient, survivor and supporter. It was always just a pipe dream, until several cancer recurrence scares woke me up to the realization that I may not have as much time as I thought to make it a reality.
Not knowing anything about how to start a business, I began taking dozens of workshops, applied to accelerator programs and started to conduct user research nights and weekends, until I literally could not think about anything else. I understood the risks involved, and budgeted my living and building expenses for one year. However, that was exactly when the pandemic hit and I had another test of grit and perseverance to try and stretch 12 months of capital into more than two years.
Looking back, I would not have changed a thing. During that time, we built a community very intentionally offline while we improved our product to serve their needs, and I ensured that we had the right team and resources in place to successfully launch a minimum lovable product.
Bastian: You’ve shared how support groups weren’t what you needed when going through the dark times post-treatment, and in contrast you’re building buddhi to be a supportive community. What differentiates these two models?
Brown: I went through active treatment back in 1995, before many support groups and mental health resources existed, especially for young adults. Most groups that I’ve found over the years serve an older population and focus on active treatment versus survivorship. I also wasn’t always comfortable verbally expressing how I was feeling, as it felt really painful and shameful to admit out loud to others who I felt had it worse than I did. I didn’t fit in anywhere, as a childhood cancer survivor of a rare disease. I wanted to create space for others like me–to support healing across the entire cancer experience, regardless of time, diagnosis, or geography. It’s important that our product bridges the gaps that exist within our existing social networks, which often create more friction for patients getting the support they need.
Bastian: What advice do you have for people living with cancer and for those that care about them?
Brown: Well, there is no one size fits all approach to getting through a cancer experience. I would encourage patients to take things day by day, and give yourself grace because you’re doing the best you can. Recognize your emotions and express them as best you can and don’t let them bottle up inside. It might be helpful to talk to a therapist, write in a journal, and join a community like buddhi to connect with others who understand and can help you cope. Protect your peace with boundaries and self-care. And, for people who care about someone going through an experience with cancer, understand that they need your support now more than ever. We have lots of great resources for you on buddhi, too!