[INTERVIEW] ‘The Challenge’ Vet Diem Brown on Battling Cancer, Starting MedGift

Photo: (FilmMagic)

During our sit down with cancer survivor and The Challenge veteran Diem Brown, one statement she made really resonated with us: “From every challenge that I had to face in life, I realize one thing: as corny as it sounds, everything does happen for a reason. You take what you’re given and you make things better.” With that philosophy, not only is she charging through the latest season (“Battle of the Exes”), but she’s setting out to grow the org she founded — and the first ever online medical gift registry — MedGift!

Diem was diagnosed with ovarian cancer at the age of 23. She bounced back, stronger than ever, and made a powerful statement as she returned to The Duel in 2007. Almost 5 years later, she’s helping other patients — those battling cancer, but others too — with MedGift. As the first initiative of it’s kind, her accomplishment is being celebrated by MAKERS: Women Who Make America, a landmark digital video and broadcast initiative from AOL and PBS aiming to become not only the largest but also the most dynamic collection of women’s stories ever assembled.

We had the pleasure to sit down with Diem about The Challenge, “the challenge” (battling ovarian cancer), and what MedGift is all about. Be sure to check out the full interview below–and follow @DiemBrown on Twitter for more on Diem tackling life’s challenges, in 140 characters or less!

Act: What made you want to go back for another season of The Challenge?

Diem Brown: I love doing the challenges. It’s something that not many people get to do and you’re pushing yourself to every single limit, both mentally and physically. I was getting a lot of Twitter messages from cancer patients asking, “How are you doing now and are you back to the way you were before?” And for some reason that stuck in my head, and I wanted to kind of go onto the next Challenge and show people that I’m different then when I first started because I’m stronger. I have so much more passion and energy and motivation. Like the fire in the drive that’s in me right now is something that I would never have if I didn’t have cancer. I wanted to bring Med Gift to the mainstream, and I really wanted to engage the viewers of The Challenge to see that they can do so much by helping out in ways they don’t even realize.

You’ve had to battle through a different — more scary, life-changing — challenge: ovarian cancer. We’re so happy to see you stronger than ever! Tell us about what you went through.

After Fresh Meat, I started my chemotherapy treatment. Fresh Meat hadn’t aired yet, I’m still doing freelance reporting, going to these carpets and what not. I got down to about 93 pounds at one point mid-treatment. And lost all of my hair the whole thing, eyebrows, eyelashes, the whole thing. I didn’t tell my employer, because I’m like “I’m an entertainment reporter — really you’re not going to want a bald girl on the red carpet!”

So I went to a Halloween store that sold Hollywood wigs for $5, put on the wig and went to the red carpet. A security guard stopped me and he goes, “You know you are visually offensive right?” I was like, I don’t know he thought I was on drugs or anorexic or what. But I felt that way — I felt like this monster, I felt like I looked in the mirror and I saw death, I didn’t see me. His words made me go into huge depression, where I didn’t leave my apartment, because I didn’t want to offend anyone.

+ WATCH: Diem Brown details her experience fighting cancer.

That experience led you to start something so simple, yet so life-changing for many patients, right? How’d that come about?

All of my friends and family that knew were saying, “How can I help you, what can I do, what do you need?” And to be honest, I’m like, “I want a real looking wig because that cheap $5 wig didn’t work! I’m visually offensive with that one, so I want like a real looking wig!” In the same moment, I get an email from my girlfriend and she’s getting married, and she sends me her wedding registry. I can celebrate my girlfriend’s wedding in Georgia, being physically in California by clicking on an item and giving her a blender in two seconds.

Where is the patient gift registry? Where are you celebrating the fight for you life because you do you celebrate every other moment of your life? You celebrate the birth of life with a baby registry. You celebrate the joining of two lives with a wedding registry, but there is no registry for the fight for your life whether it be cancer or a car accident.

And MedGift was born! 

Yeah, I’m like, “Alright I guess I am in chemo for sixteen hours I’m going to get a book, ‘HTML for Dumbies,’ and I’m going to create a website.” I had to learn HTML code, you know totally geeked out. I figured out how to make a website. Within the first year without any publicity, we helped over 100,000 families just by word of mouth alone. I wanted to find a company that could verify patients. A doctor told me to look at the biggest health company in the U.S., McKesson and Relay Health — they invented the prescription bottle! I pitched them as hard as I could, and they accepted Med Gift. I think they said, “Med Gift is going to revolutionize the healthcare regime of how people actually deal with it, bringing it back to the people and making it more simple to do.”

How does MedGift work, and how can people help?

People can deliver and reduce one item of stress whether it be helping pay your medical bills, groceries for someone, getting a wig, a wheelchair, even things that are non-monetary like dog-sitting while a patient is in treatment. Anything that can reduce one item of stress. That’s what I want MedGift to do.

And right now, I’m trying to get in every single hospital. Currently, it’s available at 6,000 hospitals in the United States, and I need help. If you want to get involved with Med Gift there are three things you can do:

+ Give a gift. There’s always a patient on the MedGift website and you can help out monetarily.

+ Tell your doctor about MedGift. But if you don’t have any money, if you know a doctor or a nurse, or anyone that works at a hospital, anyone, talk to them and tell them about MedGift.

+ Spread the word to friends. If you don’t know anyone, Tweet it. Maybe someone you know knows somebody. You won’t realize how many connections you have, until you put yourself out there. If you get MedGift into your local hospital, it’s you who is potentially saving someone’s life.

Learn more about MedGift by taking action below, and tweet Diem at @diembrown.

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More from Diem & MAKERS

More from Diem & MAKERS

Learn more about Diem's participation with MAKERS, and her org MedGift, the first online medical gift registry.