Unique space for cancer patients and survivors
|By Alex Coop - Staff Writer | August 25, 2016|
An unimpressive break room in the depths of the Haliburton Hospital is where Haliburton resident Diane Smith goes to talk about the cancer that threatened her life for several years.
But the people who enter the space regularly bring an enormous amount of positive energy and interesting stories.
Joining her on a Tuesday afternoon at the Ruth Parkes Room are two other cancer survivors and the hospital’s hospice coordinator, Lynn Thompson, all of whom are regular attendees of the hospital’s Living with Cancer support group.
The number of people who attend these sessions fluctuates regularly.
“The people who are going through their treatments, doing chemo, sometimes can’t make it,” Thompson said. “They might be too tired or not feel well.”
Sometimes, the cancer simply wins.
“To see an empty chair that was occupied at the last meeting is hard,” says Jane Van Nood, a hospital facilitator and breast cancer survivor.
Smith was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2005, a year before the support group emerged in Haliburton to give cancer patients and survivors an opportunity to share stories and make friends.
But at the time, Smith was living in Iqaluit, Nunavut, and shortly after her diagnosis, in the midst of all the tests and uncertainty, she said she felt frustrated and confused.
“You feel very alone at the beginning,” she said on Aug 16. “If you don’t plan on living, it’s very tough to stay positive.”
Months of drug treatment and chemo therapy, combined with her decision to move to Haliburton and join the support group, helped Smith conquer her cancer.
However, Smith’s story doesn’t end there, as she continues to deal with the after effects of her cancer treatment.
The drugs and the chemo therapy change your body, Van Nood emphasized.
“It really kills your immune system,” she said, pointing to different ways the body reacts to treatment, like losing the ability to sweat in certain areas. “But fear is the real enemy.”
She recalls one of her chemo therapy sessions dubbed “The Red Devil,” because of how the chemicals “take you to the edge of death and back.”
“My cancer was very advanced and very aggressive,” Van Nood said, noting the treatments were physically and mentally draining.
Now she has a leaky heart valve, an after-effect of her chemo that she said she hopes doctors repair through surgery in the coming months.
Local resident Ron Clagg, who was diagnosed with esophageal cancer, has been with the group since the very beginning.
He was told he had a 50/50 chance to survive past five years. That was in 2006.
“My surgeon actually told me I only had a 10 per cent survival rate, it was the oncologist who made it 50/50,” he laughed, adding he has to be careful with what he eats due to his esophagus’ fragile state.
Sometimes conversations revolve around where to get a good wig, or what types of treatment work best for pain management. Spouses typically don’t attend meetings, in order to give those who do, an opportunity to talk openly about their cancer, which Thompson admits can be difficult to do with friends and family.
But even outside of the hospital, a cancer patient’s support system should be fully-educated and involved in these types of discussions.
“It’s better to talk about it openly than brush it under the rug,” she said. “It makes it easier for everyone.”
Everyone at the meeting encouraged cancer patients and survivors to reach out to them, but to also be assertive.
“To not bring it up at all, and to not try and improve your situation, makes it a lot harder for you,” Van Nood said.
ALEX COOP is a reporter for The Highlander.