Real Talk With Ann Graham, Founder and Executive Director of MIB Agents
Barbie was created in 1959 with one purpose – to teach little girls that they could do and be anything.
Now in 2023, Greta Gerwig’s Barbie movie is breaking box office records, showcasing to audiences the importance of learning to accept everything about yourself (flaws and all) to help make the world a better place. The film signifies a pivotal moment where we challenge outdated norms and embrace the power of female empowerment.
To celebrate this historical moment, we want to introduce you to three real-life “Barbies” changing the world with their incredible nonprofit organizations. While each has a different story and cause, they are all important examples to people everywhere that anyone can make a difference…
We start our series with Ann Graham, an osteosarcoma survivor and the founder/executive director of MIB Agents. Diagnosed at 43, Ann’s battle with this bone cancer ignited her mission to improve the lives of children facing osteosarcoma. In 2012, inspired by a fellow patient’s struggle, she established MIB Agents, offering direct support, education, funding, and community. Ann’s days blend technology, nature, and reflection, fueled by the memory of those lost to osteosarcoma. With podcasts, OsteoBites and osTEAo, she shares insights and experiences, extending her organization’s reach. Join us on Ann’s resilient and compassionate journey as she works to create a better world for young cancer fighters.
Name: Ann Graham
Location: Barnard, VT
Title: Founder and Executive Director
Organization: MIB Agents
What it is: A leading pediatric osteosarcoma nonprofit dedicated to making it better for its community of patients, caregivers, doctors, and researchers through programs, education, and research.
What does a typical day look like for you?
I hate to say it, but I wake up by looking at my phone. First, and ostensibly, for the time, which devolves into email, texts, social media, and a scan of home security footage of bears, birds, and wandering cats that love to stop by for residual birdseed. We have the cameras “for security,” but most people in Vermont would laugh at the notion of crime in the nation’s very safe and least-populated state.
A walk in the woods follows, feeding the dogs who are unfazed by wildlife – but overly protective of delivery personnel, a shower, then work. My workday starts by lighting a candle and saying a prayer in front of a shrine of kids’ funeral cards and photos. They are in whose honor I work. The kids have passed from osteosarcoma, bone cancer; an experience, a cancer, we share, but I survived. I ask them to help me in my work and to have the courage they had while battling this awful disease.
Another prayer follows this, then I get to work with a brilliant team of women who are all highly mission-driven to Make It Better (MIB) for kids with osteosarcoma, bone cancer. It is different every day post-prayer, but one thing is the same – to help fund kinder, more effective treatments, provide support and education, and whatever else it takes. After work, I enjoy dinner with my family, and a movie – if we can find a good one, a book if we don’t, then sleep.
What’s your favorite thing about what you do?
I get to work with people who are wholeheartedly dedicated to the work we get to do together. This includes our Leadership Team and all constituents of the osteosarcoma cancer community we serve. I enjoy our Junior Advisory Board (JAB) members. This is the most meaningful, impactful, and yes, favorite thing.
The JAB is comprised of young adults aged 15-22 who are in treatment, survivors, and siblings of those who passed from osteosarcoma. They are not only wonderful and centering to work with, but they are also WHY we do this work. They keep us grounded in our mission and our name; to Make it Better (MIB) for kids with osteosarcoma, bone cancer.
What’s the backstory of your journey to founding MIB Agents?
I was the director of sales and marketing for a luxury hotel and also had a floral and event design company. I founded this organization after being diagnosed with osteosarcoma and being treated on the pediatric cancer floor. I survived while many did not. I knew I had to do something to help, so I founded MIB Agents to do just that.
What motivated you to establish a nonprofit organization?
In a word, Alyssa. In 2010, I was training for a marathon when my leg started hurting. Misdiagnosed for nine months as “42 and a runner,” I finally had an MRI that revealed a tumor on my shin (tibia). This turned out to be a traditionally pediatric bone cancer called osteosarcoma. Age notwithstanding, I was treated on the pediatric cancer floor at Memorial Sloan Kettering.
I was the only grownup surrounded by kids with cancer who were all coping better than I was. Including an 11-year-old girl I knew named Alyssa, with the same cancer as me. She was being sent home with no further treatments or trials available. I rallied friends and family to create a special weekend in NYC for her and her family. She passed less than two weeks later.
Other kids I was treated with also needed uplifting – the ‘missions’ as we now call them – keep coming. We kept going, self-funding until we became a 501c3 official nonprofit in 2016. This is when our programs expanded to include the first national osteosarcoma conference.
It was clear that the need for more research, support programs, and education was greatly needed in this space. All things grew from there.
What is it like running a nonprofit organization?
It’s kind of a tough gig. The kids I work with suffer the loss of a limb and, too often, their life. I attend too many funerals of too many kids and young adults. However, I know that what we are doing is reducing suffering, and ultimately, that is more meaningful to me than any other paying job could be.
What’s your biggest takeaway from your role in the organization?
The same thing I took away from being an adult patient on the pediatric cancer floor. Life is climbing the mountain searching for a wise old man and finding that a child is there holding all the knowledge worthy of finding.
Real talk—I saw that the organization includes a weekly podcast. Can you tell me a little more about that?
We have two podcasts; OsteoBites and osTEAo. OsteoBites was started in April 2020 to share research and innovation in osteosarcoma during COVID. Each week, we speak to a leader in cancer research or treatment about their work and everything relevant in this space, from topics like fertility preservation (due to highly toxic chemotherapies) to new research and clinical trials. Our live audience includes doctors, researchers, and families. We now have a library of over 100 episodes that live in perpetuity on our website, YouTube, and podcast platforms. This is helpful for clinicians and families who want more info on a topic, like a clinical trial.
There is “osTEAo: Spilling the Tea on all Things Childhood Cancer,” hosted by two of our JAB members (ages 20 & 23) experiencing cancer. This is a more conversational format about dating, intimacy, body image, humor, navigating friends and campus with new challenges and disability. Topics that are relevant to young adult cancer patients.
What unique challenges have you faced as a woman in a leadership position, and how have you overcome them?
Low expectations to be more specific. That we would have an impact, a voice, longevity, and meaningfully affect change in cancer was unexpected. The overcoming happens when I show up authentic, purposeful, kind, and humble in what I do not know, and confident in what I do know.
Can you discuss any significant milestones or achievements that your organization has reached?
It is a long-held belief that everyone can do something to Make It Better. This notion has played out every day. The achievement is bringing people together to help kids with cancer. You do not need to be a researcher or doctor to do that. If you believe, as we do, that no child should die of cancer, then you are welcome, and we will make you feel right at home.
We once had a tattoo artist send beautiful art to kids in treatment through our Warrior Mail program, this delighted all, especially the child. Building a diverse community focused on the same goal and sharing this work is the way to “better.” “The” significant achievement is yet to be attained; no child should die from cancer.
How would you describe your work/life balance?
Something I cannot achieve, only manage every single day.
Please share with us the best piece of career advice you’ve received.
It is your attitude, not your aptitude, that determines your altitude.
Do you have any big career plans on the horizon? Where do you see your organization in five years?
Expansion of MIB Agents to reach other institutions, scientists, and patients. Better for all constituents of this disease community regardless of geography.
Collaboration, resources, and community for all who are suffering from this cancer.
Is there anything not covered during the interview you would like readers to know?
Osteosarcoma is the oldest cancer, found in dinosaurs and mummies. Dogs are also victims of this cancer and are 50 times more likely to get it. In humans, it affects kids aged 10-20, usually during rapid growth (puberty). Treatment includes 3-5 highly toxic chemotherapies over nearly a year and removal of the affected bone, resulting in amputation or limb salvage surgery. There have been no new treatments in nearly 50 years. All childhood cancers are considered rare and receive less than 7% of the NIH budget for research.
Anyone can help Make it Better. Whatever it is you do, do it to help reduce suffering in the world. Use your powers for good – just like you all at Earn Spend Live are doing now.