OAK LAWN, Ill. -- At the Lights of Hope ceremony in Washington D.C., tens of thousands of luminary bags representing cancer patients lit up the National Mall.
As Jean Ryan of Oak Lawn was admiring the bags from Illinois, she spotted one of her own making.
"I just happened to look down and there was my moms," said Ryan, who lost her mother to lung cancer in 2015 and father to prostate cancer in January of this year. "I broke down crying."
Ryan was on Capitol Hill as an Ambassador Constituent Team Lead (ACT Lead) for Illinois 6th congressional district through the Cancer Action Network, the American Cancer Society's nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy affiliate.
She heads to Washington D.C. yearly with hundreds of other ACT Leads to petition U.S. Senators and Representatives to support funding for cancer research and public health policies that reduce the disease.
"Telling your story and why you're there is the most impactful thing and it sits with them and they think about it," Ryan said. "It's not about changing today, it's about changing the future."
Ryan says her advocacy began after her mother's diagnosis in 2015 which followed her father's diagnosis in 2012.
After discovering American Cancer Society resources through Christ Advocate Medical Center in Oak Lawn, she joined a Relay for Life team to raise money.
"We raised $7,000 just asking family and friends," Ryan said. "It really changed my life because I saw how many people were impacted by cancer."
Later that year Ryan's mother died from lung cancer and she began to see butterflies everywhere; one landed on her knee on the day of her mother's passing, on her mother's casket on the day of her funeral, and one even showed up while she was giving a speech at a Relay for Life Event.
Ryan said the butterflies gave her peace and inspired courage in her to continue to advocate for those affected by cancer.
"It was just so out of the ordinary for me to do this but something got lit in me," Ryan said. "Sometimes that's what it needs; the average person to get out there and hear their voice."
Soon Ryan was recruited to represent parts of Cook County and DuPage County as an ACT Lead for the Cancer Action Network.
In Washington D.C., volunteers receive issues training from the American Cancer Society to learn how to advocate and talk to government leaders.
"I can't say enough about this organization," Ryan said. "To me it's my second family."
In January of 2023, Ryan's father also passed away from cancer.
She described her father as her hero and explained that her parent's battle with the disease is the reason she continues to advocate for change in Washington.
"I do it because my parents both died from cancer," Ryan said. "I want to be part of the solution."
For more information about the American Cancer Society's Cancer Action Network, visit fightcancer.org