Before Alison Maxwell became a SurvivorNet editor, she was a reader.
In 2015, her husband, NBA writer Jeff Zillgitt, was diagnosed with colon cancer. Within a year, it had spread to his liver. Over the course of his treatment, Maxwell found herself gravitating to SurvivorNet, which was founded in 2018 with the lofty goal of becoming the nation’s top cancer information media company.
“I set up a Google Alert for anytime somebody posted something about colon cancer, and I started seeing SurvivorNet more and more,” she recalled. “It was the place for me. It helped calm me down and it helped inform me.”
By the time Zillgitt’s treatment concluded – he currently shows no signs of disease – Maxwell was nearly two decades into a career that had taken her to the role of managing editor of life and travel at USA Today. Then the pandemic hit, which left her with “more time to think about what path I wanted to follow,” as she puts it. When she happened upon a LinkedIn ad for the role she’d ultimately accept at SurvivorNet, she took it as a sign.
“It sounds corny, but there was a feeling of, ‘This was meant to be,’” Maxwell said.
Maxwell’s path to SurvivorNet isn’t entirely without precedent: CEO Steve Alperin, formerly an executive with ABC News, co-founded the company after his father succumbed to cancer. But her arrival marks a shift in SurvivorNet’s bigger-picture strategy, via an increasing emphasis on breaking news and video content.
Which isn’t to say that SurvivorNet will become unrecognizable overnight. “It’s not my plan to go in another direction. We’ll always be about consumer-friendly, easily digestible content that helps people fight their battles with cancer better,” Maxwell stressed.
Rather, she sees an opportunity to increase the overall volume of content. “Instead of three news stories per day, maybe we double it to six. For features, we can go beyond the basic, ‘What is colon cancer and do you fight it?’ and get into more complex stories around genetic testing and colon cancer, what blood biopsies can do for people with colon cancer or what it’s like when a spot is misinterpreted as scarring during a scan.”
Maxwell is clearly well versed in the language of cancer. Similarly, as someone whose life was changed by her husband’s brush with Stage 4 cancer, she arrives with hard-won empathy for anyone in a comparable position. It’s no surprise, then, that she views her new role as less a job than a mission.
“I look back on the person I was in 2015 when my husband was diagnosed, and I feel so much sadness and sorrow for that person,” she said. “I think of the people just now starting that journey and I want to be the helping hand for them. I know it sounds idealistic, but I really believe it’s possible.”
That idealism couldn’t be a better match with SurvivorNet’s defining focus. “It’s a good feeling to be able to arm patients and caregivers with information that will help them during treatment,” she continued. “What I read on SurvivorNet made me feel prepared and knowledgeable, but it also made me feel confident. You’re already fighting one battle; if you’re not confident, you’re fighting a second one.”