ATHABASCA - They are three words no one wants to hear — "You have cancer” — but now what?
There is a lot of power in such a short sentence, and those three words, once spoken, can deliver a punch to the gut and send one's mind reeling about the very real possibilities of leaving your family, loved ones, community and life behind. It can be a dark time, but there are organizations out there ready to help you get to your treatments, provide comfort and support, and a place to feel safe throughout your cancer ordeal.
While there are smaller cancer treatment centres in places like Barrhead and Bonnyville, the majority of new cancer patients in northern Alberta will get their treatments in Edmonton, which for many rural residents is an additional worry at a time when the last thing they need is more stress. Many hours will be spent on the highway, and groups like Road to Hope can be there for every kilometre to make sure patients make their appointments, and get the treatment they need to recover.
The non-profit group, based in Athabasca and Lac La Biche, started in 2008 and has been providing rides for area cancer patients ever since. For Athabasca County resident Ricky Nault, the service was a god-send.
“I couldn't work, I was trying to get finances through disability, I had no idea how I was going to go to these treatments,” Nault said. “Then I heard of this Road to Hope, and I go, ‘Wow, what an amazing, amazing place that just happened to come about when I was in desperate need of these cancer treatments.’”
Nault has an aggressive form of cancer which damages his bones, so he was unable to get himself to treatment — starting off in a wheelchair, then a walker, and now on his own. For five years, Road to Hope ensured he never missed an appointment which were weekly to start, then biweekly.
“Cancer takes a lot from a person and you're not in the greatest mood every day because, especially with this kind of cancer, I was in pain every day, and you're struggling through each day and you're just not right mentally, physically, financially. It takes everything from you,” said Nault. “So, that being said, the drivers, and even the nurses at the Cross (Cancer Institute) have to be cut from a certain cloth.”
Unfortunately, Road to Hope hasn't been able to provide the service since March 2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic and accompanying restrictions for physical distancing.
President Daniela Cameron hopes their volunteer drivers can resume their work soon, and is aiming for an early summer start-up, depending on provincial restrictions.
“Our goal is to return back to work for July 2,” said Cameron. “Alberta Health (Services) has the goal of 65 per cent of Alberta being vaccinated by the end of June.”
And while they are unsure what the protocols will be they know the need is out there for their service.
“We are anxiously waiting to get our clients and drivers reunited and back to their life-saving treatments,” said a recent statement from the Road to Hope board. “Our mission and passion are about helping those diagnosed with cancer in our communities. Not being able to operate this past year has been very hard on us as we know how very traumatic and stressful it has been on our clients.”
The past months have taught the executive and supporters patience and resilience, the statement read.
“We are beyond grateful and want to thank everyone in our communities for all the continued support over the years and we hope together going forward we can continue to run our amazing organization.”
It can be a long road to Edmonton, at such a time in one's life, and some need regular treatments that make travelling from hundreds of kilometres away not only inconvenient, but unfeasible as well. If that's the case, there is also somewhere to stay in Edmonton.
Sorrentino’s Compassion House is a place just for women undergoing cancer treatments, offering 15 highly discounted hotel-style rooms for patients and one adult companion, along with one premium suite to stay in, as Athabasca resident Barbara Burns discovered on her road to recovery.
“When I was going through my cancer journey, I felt a great deal of isolation, with people not really knowing what's going on," she said. "I was in a rural community and here I come to Compassion House, which was incredible, and I had all these new friends that I'd met.”
Sorrentino’s Compassion House started fundraising in 1996, building the original five-suite house in 2002 and has been able to remain open during the pandemic with enhanced cleaning protocols, health screenings, enforced masks, hand sanitizer and gloves and restrictions on outside visitors all to keep patients who have a weak immune system due to cancer and treatment safe.
“There's a great deal of sense of isolation, because not only are you the only one going through the cancer, but all your resources are in the city and they're far away from you,” said Burns.
The non-profit offers transportation to and from appointments while in the city, and even assists with errands like getting groceries to use in the communal kitchen, and picking up prescriptions, but they also offer after-treatment care.
“A lot of people make the mistake that the cancer journey ends when you're finished radiation or finished whatever treatments you're going through,” she said. “But it's not true, the cancer journey really doesn't end with treatment, it continues on.”
Burns said she experienced depression and side effects from the treatments for her cancer, so she was very pleased to contribute to CompassionConnects, an online resource written by and for people dealing with cancer, including Burns herself, and it’s available to anyone.
“I noticed it's really good in supporting mental health. They've got lots of articles by professionals and by former survivors like myself. I wrote a blog about mental health,” she said.
The non-medical facility is located just two kilometres away from the Cross Cancer Institute and is open to any woman who lives at least 50 kilometres outside of Edmonton and is booked for cancer-related appointments or treatments.