When Matt Ferguson’s mother was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2008, he visited her as she underwent treatment at Compass Oncology in Portland, Oregon. Matt’s aunt gave his mother, Julie, a bag full of goodies like a pillow, blanket, Sudoku puzzles, and a scarf. Ferguson, then 14, noticed that many of the other women going through chemo didn’t have the same amenities as his mother.
“She brought that bag with her everywhere she went — to the center, on an appointment, or to the beach,” Ferguson said.
That one little bag brought so much comfort to Matt's mother, he realized other cancer patients might appreciate it. "I thought, 'why can’t I make bags for all of these women, brighten their days?’ "
The teen's generous insight led to "Matt’s Chemo Bags," durable pink tote bags filled with comfort items like ChapStick, warm spa socks, body lotion, and teddy bears for patients undergoing cancer treatment. Since its creation in 2009, Ferguson, now 20, has distributed over 9,500 bags to oncology centers and hospitals in the West.
“I think the only state that I haven’t covered is Nevada,” he said.
Julie Ferguson, Matt’s mother, has been remission for three years and still keeps her bag by her side. “It was filled with the kinds of things you want to have with you when going through chemotherapy; all kinds of comfort items. It’s in my closet right now,” Ferguson, 58, said. “It’s still my Mary Poppins bag.”
The bags have been a "great, really positive experience for everyone," says Deann Lund, an infusion center nurse at Huntsman Cancer Institute in Salt Lake City, Utah. Last November, Ferguson and volunteers from the Northern Arizona University and University of Utah chapters of the Sigma Chi fraternity delivered about 40 bags to the cancer treatment clinic.
Chemotherapy patients and staff were overjoyed. One young cancer patient having “a really bad day, both physically and emotionally,” became happily teary over the gift, which the volunteers delivered with roses and a song, says Lund.
Among those who praised Ferguson’s efforts was Rep. Mitch Greenlick of Oregon’s State Legislature, who underwent chemotherapy himself from 2005 to 2006 for mantle cell lymphoma, a rare non-Hodgkin lymphoma that most often affects men over 60. He was being treated at a Kaiser Permanente facility in Portland and recalls receiving a complimentary blanket during his stay.
Years later, he learned about Matt’s Chemo Bags.
“I was moved to respond to him when I heard what he was doing,” said Rep. Greenlick. “I know how much it meant to me when I received my pink ‘chemo blanket’ from a volunteer during my chemotherapy.”
Greenlick, 79, has been in full remission since 2006, and remembers feeling “warm, fuzzy, and very supported” when he received his blanket during treatment.
Ferguson, who is studying business management at Northern Arizona University, hopes to continue expanding distribution of the goody bags with the help of school fraternities, corporate collection drives and one $10,000 grant from Nickelodeon’s TeenNick Halo Award in 2012. “I want to pursue this as long as I can,” he said. “I want this to be a service project for other communities."