"If I'm able to give back to the healthcare workers, to any other kid that is in my situation," says Tracy Vicere of Friends & Angels, "then maybe that's why I was spared."

By Joelle Goldstein
October 14, 2020 04:19 PM
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For Tracy Vicere, giving up is not an option.

The Long Island resident, who was diagnosed with two cancers as a teen and is currently battling multiple sclerosis, found a way to turn her health challenges into something beautiful when she created Friends & Angels: The Tracy Vicere Foundation in 2011.

Modeled after what she wished she had while receiving treatment at Cohen Children's Medical Center in Queens, Vicere's foundation supports patients and families in the hematology, oncology and bone marrow transplant unit at the same hospital that saved her life years ago.

Since establishing the foundation, Vicere has raised over $150,000 through an annual fundraiser and helped hundreds of patients and families, as well as survivors from Cohen Children’s, through her resources, programs, donations and events.

"I am lucky to be here," Vicere, now 47, tells PEOPLE. "I don't know who was watching out for me, but every now and then, if I get into a funk... I'll read [my medical records], and I'm like, 'How the hell did I survive this, really?' I am super lucky."

"If I'm able to give back to the healthcare workers, to any other kid that is in my situation," she adds, "then maybe that's why I was spared."

Tracy Vicere
| Credit: Courtesy Tracy Vicere

At 16 years old, Vicere's world was flipped upside down when doctors diagnosed her with stage 3A Hodgkin's lymphoma and stage 1A non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

The news came as another blow to her family after her sister finished treatment for her own battle against Hodgkin's lymphoma seven months earlier.

"I was scared beyond belief," Vicere recalls. "[I remember] going home, opening all my cards and gifts, and being like, 'Wow, I could probably take all this money and hit the road — up and leave and run away, and let's see if anyone knows I'm missing.'"

Despite being terrified of what was to come, Vicere says she was put at ease by already knowing the staff at Cohen Children’s. She also alleviated her anxieties by bringing items from home to make her stay more comfortable.

"I used to bring my own pillow, comforter, [and] decorations because, even to this day, that smell — that sterile hospital, rough-sheets smell — gets me ill," she says. "I wanted [my hospital room] to be like my room at home, with some normalcy."

Tracy Vicere with her mother and two friends, Rosa and Rosie, who are all on the board of Friends & Angels
| Credit: Courtesy Tracy Vicere

After a year of treatment, which Vicere says was an "emotional rollercoaster," she officially went into remission on July 5, 1990. She has remained there ever since and officially marked her 30th anniversary of being cancer-free this year.

"To me, that date is more important than my birthday because, if it wasn't for that date, I wouldn't have birthdays," she says.

Eventually, Vicere went off to college before becoming a special education teacher at Woodward Parkway Elementary School in Farmingdale, New York.

But in June 2009, she suffered another health setback when doctors diagnosed her with multiple sclerosis. It was 20 years to the day that she received her cancer diagnosis.

Vicere refused to let this keep her down and decided to do something impactful. A year later, she came up with the idea for Friends & Angels.

"It was on New Year's Eve [in 2010]. I remember thinking, 'I'm sick of all these resolutions I make. I don't need to lose weight. I don't really want to work out. I don't want these things to last for a month and just forget about them,'" she recalls. "So, I took out a little notebook, and I'm like, 'Let me think of all the things that I wish I had when I was in the hospital.'"

Tracy Vicere with her oncologist, Dr. Jonathan Fish
| Credit: Courtesy Tracy Vicere
Tracy Vicere dropping off supplies at the hospital
| Credit: Courtesy Tracy Vicere

Within a few months and after a lot of brainstorming, Vicere — along with her mother and two best friends from college, Rosie and Rosa — managed to get the foundation named, organized, certified with the IRS and running.

By October 2011, Friends & Angels held its first fundraiser, bringing in $4,000. It has since grown, with hundreds of volunteers chipping in and last year's event bringing in $18,000.

The foundation is known for decorating hospital rooms for patients to make them homier; creating hospital scrapbooks and surgical dolls for patients; donating toys, games, crafts and technology; providing toiletry bags to families; hosting movie nights and holiday events; organizing medical binders for survivors in the survivorship program; and sponsoring the Helping Our Peers Endure Stress (HOPES) program to help hospital staff with their emotional health.

"We have my aspect on it as the patient, my parents' aspect as being the parents, and my friends looking in on it thinking, 'What would we have wanted to do for you?'" Vicere says. "So, we have a good mix of people helping us out and figuring out what to do."

Although this year's fundraiser had to be canceled due to COVID-19, Vicere still managed to raise thousands of dollars for her organization — thanks to a surprise donation from the teachers at her school.

"They are awesome," she shares. "Working in a school is the most amazing place to work because you have so many different people... that want to help."

A hospital bed that Friends & Angels decorated
| Credit: Courtesy Tracy Vicere
A hospital bed that Friends & Angels decorated
| Credit: Courtesy Tracy Vicere

As she continues to lead her organization and manage her M.S. amid a global pandemic, Vicere says she's taking each day as it comes.

"You have to take one hour at a time, one day at a time," she says. "Having cancer... everyone automatically thinks I'm so brave, I'm so tough. No, I'm not. I have no choice. I might be all those things, but what was my option?"

"The hard part for me now is I have survivor's guilt because some of these kids weren't as sick as I was. And I just happen to be fortunate enough and lucky enough to afford the battle," she continues.

"So, on the outside, people see me that way, but... I was scared," she adds. "You had to fight the fight. Otherwise, I wouldn't be here right now."

Those interested in donating to Vicere's foundation can do so here.