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Michael Foley ‘paying it forward’ through Ducks for Cancer

  • Pepprell’s Michael Foley in his Ducks for Cancer workshop on...

    Pepprell’s Michael Foley in his Ducks for Cancer workshop on Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2022. Foley spends hours carving and painting ducks, which are later sold to help those undergoing cancer treatment. (Shane Rhodes/Sentinel & Enterprise)

  • Ducks for Cancer Founder Michael Foley paints one of many...

    Ducks for Cancer Founder Michael Foley paints one of many ducks that will be sold for charity on Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2022. (Shane Rhodes/Sentinel & Enterprise)

  • Ducks hang to dry in Michael Foley’s workshop before they...

    Ducks hang to dry in Michael Foley’s workshop before they are sold as part of Foley’s Ducks for Cancer charity. Proceeds from the ducks, depending on which are purchased, are donated to the Chemo Bag Project or Lucy’s Love Bus. (Shane Rhodes/Sentinel & Enterprise)

  • Pepperell’s Michael Foley outside his home on Wednesday, Oct. 5,...

    Pepperell’s Michael Foley outside his home on Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2022. Foley founded Ducks for Cancer, a charity to help those undergoing cancer treatment, after his own cancer diagnosis and subsequent treatment in 2017. (Shane Rhodes/Sentinel & Enterprise)

  • Michael Foley’s Ducks for Cancer along the side of a...

    Michael Foley’s Ducks for Cancer along the side of a road in Pepperell on Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2022. The ducks can be found along streets throughout Massachusetts and, according to Foley, have been purcahsed in all 50 states. (Shane Rhodes/Sentinel & Enterprise)

  • The original duck that inspired Michael Foley’s Ducks for Cancer...

    The original duck that inspired Michael Foley’s Ducks for Cancer design at Foley’s house on Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2022. The duck was created by and gifted to Foley by his father in the early 1980s. (Shane Rhodes/Sentinel & Enterprise)

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PEPPERELL — Most people diagnosed with late-stage cancer would consider themselves anything but “lucky.” Michael Foley is not like most.

While he once might have thought otherwise, Foley’s perspective has been permanently altered by his own diagnosis and subsequent journey. Now, through his charity, Ducks for Cancer, Foley does what he can to not only cherish every moment, but “pay it forward” and help those in the midst of their own cancer trek.

“(Ducks for Cancer) isn’t for me or about me, it’s about paying it forward,” Foley said. “It’s about giving a little kindness each and every day, doing what I can to help people just because.”

Foley’s venture, which has raised over $60,000 for various charities as of this October, began in earnest a year ago as he sold the first of many handmade wooden ducks and donated the proceeds to the Chemo Bag Project, a nonprofit that distributes gift bags to cancer treatment patients “in need of cheer.” The roots of Ducks for Cancer, however, can be found in his own diagnosis which came back in 2017.

While he avoided the doctor at first, Foley ultimately ended up in the emergency room after multiple days with extreme headaches. He “just didn’t feel right,” while his usual upbeat personality had turned notably sour.

“I just started acting kind of nasty to everybody, even my wife and kids,” he said. “I wasn’t myself.”

Foley was diagnosed with stage-four lung cancer, which doctors said had spread to his liver, kidney and brain. Unfortunately, it was far from his first exposure to the awful disease; he lost his father and sister to cancer in 2010 and 2015, respectively.

Still, Foley said he was stunned.

“I can’t even describe what I was going through, what I was thinking,” he said. “The diagnosis, it just blew me away.”

Foley was later transported to Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, where he underwent multiple surgeries to remove cancerous tumors. Radiation treatment followed, as did various clinical trials and chemotherapy, a process Foley described as “horrendous.”

“The first three years, the chemo(therapy), being in and out of the hospital, it was like a horror movie,” Foley said. “Just awful, no other way to describe it.”

While he made it back home, Foley’s life never quite returned to “normal.” Unable to work, he searched for something to soak up his time; enter the wooden fowl.

Foley first crafted his ducks as a “silly” Christmas gift for his kids and close family, modeled after similar ducks that his father had made for him back in the early 1980s. But word quickly spread and, soon enough, extended family, friends, acquaintances and even people Foley had never met were asking how they could get their own.

Foley immediately saw the potential — and, with the help of his family, Ducks for Cancer was born.

“I couldn’t do much else, so I made them as sort of a Christmas present for the family,” he said. “Then some friends found out and said ‘Oh, can you make me a set?’ and it just sort of blew up from there.”

“It wasn’t long after that when I thought ‘what can I do with this?’ Because there’s a lot I can’t do anymore — what do you expect after a traumatic sort of brain injury — but I wanted to do something to help others, so that’s when I came up with the idea of Ducks for Cancer,” he said.

At first, Foley planned to donate proceeds to the “usual suspects,” such as the Mass. General Cancer Center, the Dana Farber Cancer Institute and the Jimmy Fund. But, at the recommendation of a friend and with his own experiences in mind, Foley instead chose to back the CBP, which “uplift and encourage” those in the midst of their own fight against cancer.

“What I’m doing isn’t going to cure anything,” Foley said. “But if I can make it easier for someone that’s already going through it, I think that’s a worthy cause.”

“So much money already goes into curing cancer. I want to compassionately care for people who are dealing with cancer right now because I know what they’re going through” he said.

His work did not stop there. Earlier this year, Foley introduced a new duck crafted in honor of Matthew Boyd, a 14-year-old Townsend boy that died from pediatric cancer last October.

With the help of the Boyd family, Foley and Ducks for Cancer have also raised money for Lucy’s Love Bus, which provides massage, acupuncture, music therapy, therapeutic horseback riding and other integrative therapies that “ease children’s pain and anxiety” amid their fight with cancer. As of Oct. 24, Foley had donated more than $60,000 to the CBP and nearly $6,000 to LLB.

Foley described his family as “integral” to that substantial financial success and said the project would have been “nothing” without their support.

“We came up with the idea together,” Foley said. “(Ducks for Cancer) wouldn’t be here without each and every one of them — and I am so lucky to have their support, to have them here with me through all of this,” he said.

He also stressed the importance of four local storefronts — Apple Meadow Hardware and the Farmers’ Exchange in Townsend as well as the Wilkins Farm Stand and The Barn Door in Pepperell — which have sold his ducks in their stores for zero profit.

“I never would have been able to do this without the help of those four stores,” he said. “I just make the ducks — as far as I’m concerned, they’re doing the hard part.”

Foley’s bout with cancer is far from over — he has to visit the hospital every 12 weeks for body scans — but, through his fight and charity work, he has learned to “appreciate every day” and said he hoped Ducks for Cancer could help spread that message. And, as he made note of the fact that he’s sold ducks to people in all 50 states, Foley said he was excited to see Ducks for Cancer continue to grow.

“I’m living with cancer, I’m always going to have it and I’ve accepted that, but I’m going to enjoy every day, the good and the bad, as much as I can,” he said. If I can spread that message, to not take life for granted, on top of the good we’re already doing, even better.”

“The highlight of my day is making these ducks and doing something good in the world — and I’m going to do every bit of good that I can do while I’m still here,” he said.

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