From Pain to Purpose
How facing childhood cancer motivated Eric Newman to start Roc Solid Foundation and help other kids find hope.
My name is Eric Newman, and I build playsets for kids fighting cancer.
Every year, 16,000 families are diagnosed with childhood cancer in the United States. One day, Roc Solid Foundation, the cancer nonprofit I started, will love and serve every one of them.
Here’s my story of how I came to have this goal.
My cancer experience
When I was just three years old, my mom took me to the doctor for a routine checkup. Seventy-two hours later, I was in surgery having a large mass and more than half of my liver removed.
The doctor had discovered a malignant tumor and they gave me less than a 10 percent chance of surviving. But after spending two years fighting for my life, I showed no evidence of disease and my family breathed a short-lived sigh of relief.
Cancer strikes again
In a sad, crazy twist, cancer struck our family again a few years later when my cousin was diagnosed with leukemia. Shannon was also three at diagnosis, but after a few years showed no evidence of disease.
Then a few years later, my cousin, Nicole, was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor, also at age three. We ended up losing her just a few years later.
Eight years later, Shannon’s cancer returned with a vengeance, and she lost her battle at the age of seventeen.
All three of us were diagnosed at age three, and now I was the only one left. It was a difficult reality to wrap my mind around.
Facing the fear
I remember standing in the freezing cold at Shannon’s graveside when we laid her to rest. I was struck by a terrifying thought: the cancer is going to come back and get me.
Suddenly I felt like I was living on borrowed time. Rather than turn to my family or my faith, I ran. I stopped talking about cancer. I stopped praying. I stopped reaching out to the people who cared about me most.
I began working hard, playing hard and partying even harder.
Losing it all
I worked in construction and dated a girl I hoped to marry. In 2008, I ended up losing everything when the housing market slowed down.
So, I did what every responsible person would do when they only have $1,500 left to their name: I emptied my bank account and moved to Costa Rica.
Hitting rock bottom
I spent my days surfing, hiking, rock climbing and otherwise avoiding the pain and fear inside.
But when all was still and quiet, especially at night, I wrestled with my thoughts, including about the loss of Shannon.
One evening I prayed to God. Actually, I yelled at him. You made a mistake! You took the wrong one! You should have taken me instead of Shannon. She was so much better than me!
How I found hope, strength and peace
My family is very rooted in faith, and my relationship with God is important to me.
But up until that moment, I had not prayed in years. The path I had taken led me far away from God and the hope he provides. Yet praying proved a turning point.
I wrote one word in my journal: hope. I didn’t write anything else, and I kept coming back to that word over the next few days.
I wasn’t sure what God had in mind, but it seemed he wanted to use my pain for purpose. I would soon find out.
From pain to purpose
When I returned to the U.S., one of my buddies asked me to help at a local hospital fundraiser by presenting the donation check, especially because I am a childhood cancer survivor.
While I was at the hospital, a kid with cancer walked in front of me with his IV pole, and his mom asked me what I was doing there.
For the first time since Shannon passed away, the word cancer came out of my mouth.
His mom looked at me and said, “You give us hope that our son will beat this disease one day, too.”
I felt like started my journey toward the hope that I had written about in my journal. But how exactly would I use my pain for purpose and help kids with cancer find hope?
Building my first playset
At the time, I worked odd jobs in construction to help make ends meet.
One of my friends asked me to build a playset for his child for two hundred dollars and my dad came and helped. It was hot and sticky outside, and after four hours, we were not even close to finished.
I told my dad, “We need to leave. It’s not worth the money.”
“We can’t leave,” he said. “There’s a little girl in the window that’s been watching us the entire time. I’ll pay you…we need to finish this.”
And so, we did. Nineteen hours later, after fussing and cussing, I swore I would never build another playset.
A new direction
When we put the last anchor in the ground, the little girl busts out the door, gives me a huge hug and hands me a check.
I looked at my dad with tears in my eyes and said, “I think I’m supposed to build playsets for kids fighting cancer.”
Though the girl I helped didn’t have cancer, the experience reminded me how important play is for all kids. And that’s what inspired me to start Roc Solid.
Roc Solid Foundation
One of the lessons cancer taught me was that we are not promised a tomorrow. When I found a way to use my pain for purpose and help give hope to kids going through cancer, I did a cannonball. That’s my personality, I’m all in or nothing.
I started the nonprofit, formed a board and today we build playsets for thousands of kids around the country and also give Ready Bags to more than 100 children’s hospitals.
Now, these efforts do not cure cancer. But if we can allow these families to escape the reality of cancer for one second, then we’ve done our job.
And for me, anytime I get the chance to love and serve other people, I feel like that’s when my world changes and I come alive.
Where I’m at now
I’m now 33 years cancer free and counting. I keep track of my cancer survival on my arm as tattooed hash marks. But like other survivors, I still deal with a lot of anxiety.
If I have a hangnail I’ll think, “It’s cancer.”
After my time in Costa Rica, I got married and had two healthy kids—something doctors said would not happen after my treatment.
I’m thankful for the life I have, but I still deal with the mental and emotional impacts of cancer.
Advice for others
My advice for someone dealing with cancer as a kid is that it’s okay to not be okay. Find your support group, find the people that care about you, and find some way to find joy in the journey.
I can’t always tell people that it will be okay. But when you find something that creates hope for you, hang onto it with everything that you’ve got. Whether it’s your family, your friends—or your faith.
Grab onto it and don’t let go.
Hope helps us in our current situation. And sometimes it also opens doors for us to use our pain for a purpose.
To read another encouraging story about childhood cancer, see I Think My Child Might Have Cancer.
For more about how to begin a relationship with God see Knowing God Personally.
To unlock the power of prayer see Asking God for Help.