For Arona Martin, Because Love began as a way to connect with and bring comfort to her best friend when she was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. But the products, which include a customizable journal, a cozy knit nap blanket, and bejeweled message tags, quickly found fans among other cancer patients and their supporters who craved a different way to show they care.
“It helps. It gives someone something to do and something to gift when they don’t know what to say,” Martin says. “Without necessarily having to have that difficult conversation, they can still let the other person know that they love them.”
In this exclusive interview, Martin shares her journey from event designer to product designer, and why Because Love is a game changer in the cancer support community.
What’s your story?
Several years ago, my best friend got diagnosed out the gate with stage IV lung cancer. She was 31 years old. It was devastating, and it was a shock. She was a nutritionist. She had her own business and was in great shape. There were no signs [except for] a tiny, tiny lump in her neck. She went to the doctor and they said, “You have stage IV cancer. We need to start chemo tomorrow. Start getting your end-of-life plans in place.” It was horrible.
I just felt helpless as her friend and thought: How is she going to go through this? I have a little bit of an art therapy background. I bought her a blank journal from Anthropologie and I hand-lettered different pages for her: pages to get your anger out, exercises for if you’re feeling scared, doodly fun pages, joke pages.
I went around to a bunch of people who knew her and strangers and asked them to write inspirational notes, which was weird but awesome. I [also] gave her an Anthropologie blanket [inscribed with] inspirational bible verses, quotes, and funny jokes, [as if you were] signing a cast.
She went down to M.D. Anderson (at the University of Texas) to find the right doctor. Before she left, I gave her [the journal and blanket] and she loved them. While sitting in the waiting room, women would ask her where she got that book. She had all these stories [from people with] all different ranges and stages of cancer. My heart was just bleeding for these people. I had to make these journals, so I just started making them, and sending them down. I didn’t really know the end user. I made it directly for her, but I didn’t know who she was giving them to.
Number one, it was super cathartic for me. Number two, as the friend or family or loved one, [we don’t know] how to handle it when someone we love gets cancer. It feels like we’re getting cancer, too, if I’m honest.
She went through remission for about a year, but after about 18 months, my friend passed away. It was devastating.
What was the moment you understood this idea was pretty big?
When I was making the first one, I felt like there was something there. It was so powerful for me to write the pages and fill in all this stuff and put my heart into this. On a super-religious level, I felt that God said this is something special. That’s how I felt, [but] I kind of brushed it off because we have these feelings, but then life gets in the way, so you ignore it. When I started making them for other people, [I realized] other people want this and this is a gift.
What were you thinking when you first made the journal?
I [thought]: What would I need? I knew I would be so angry. As a friend, I’m a fixer. I’m a doer. My best friend would sit with me and say, “Am I going to die?” I think a lot of people would say, “No, of course you’re not.” But because we had an honest and raw friendship, I said, “You might, so what are we going to do about it before you do?”
I was trying to be as honest as I could be. Cancer sucks. Let out your anger. It’s okay to be pissed. It’s okay tomorrow to be super sad. On one page [of the journal], you can be sad. Another is a funny doodle page. One is an anger page because it’s just a jumble of emotions at all times.
When did you decide to push this idea into something that could reach many?
It was just me making them, and I loved every minute of it. I had one extra journal, like a ratty old one. It had mistakes in it, and I never ended up finishing it because it was imperfect. A friend of mine was going to a women in business conference, so right as I was walking out the door, for whatever reason, I took the ratty old journal off of a shelf and put it in my purse. I was like, “I don’t know. Maybe there’ll be someone who knows about products.” I hadn’t even talked about [expanding] or thought about it for months.
When I went to the conference, the panel was three women who found funding on “Shark Tank.” I [went] over [and said], “I have this idea. I don’t know if it’s anything. Can you look at it and tell me?” All three of them said, “This is amazing, you have to keep going, how can we help?”
It was small people validating me. Because we’re insecure and we let all the negative things go into our head, I needed some outside validation.
Arona Martin (right) with her best friend.
What’s the appeal of having a journal?
I think having a safe space to let your feelings out and write everything down and process [your emotions] is so important. You can write a letter to yourself. We never take the time to love ourselves enough or speak kind words to [ourselves]. We’re always someone else’s best friend. Sometimes, we’re not our own best friend. Instead of focusing on the disease parts [of your life], you can focus on everything else.
What do you want people to get from your products?
I think as women we’re awesome at celebrating the peaks of life with each other. I think that we struggle to be in the pits with each other. How do we support each other in the best parts of life, and then in the shit? My hope with [Because Love] is that it would be a bridge builder. The blanket is now selling beyond cancer. It’s really about love. It started because I was trying to love my friend well. [These products are] a tool, I guess, to love others well. We never have the opportunity to sit down and write a letter and really say, “These are the five things I love about you, and this is why, and I’m here for you, and I’m in your corner.”