One Brampton organization trying to relieve the double dose of isolation for cancer sufferers
A cancer diagnosis is like a trapdoor.
When the doctor delivers that dreaded word, the floor falls away. Everyday worries and all the trivial concerns of life suddenly disappear. The most basic of human emotions take over.
Fear and survival.
With them comes a loss of control, sense of isolation and, often, anger.
Many adults had a similar experience when the COVID-19 pandemic struck in March 2020.
Fear of an unknown, deadly viral enemy; a sense of lost control as governments the world over instituted previously unforeseen safety measures to keep us safe — triggering waves of panic buying and outrage over lost rights.
COVID isolation, forced by a positive test, travel quarantine, or a government lockdown, has created a wave of mental health challenges among Canadians that could overwhelm service providers in the coming years. The individual and collective anger over what has been done to our lives — time lost with loved ones that will never be given back, economic hardship and, most tragically, the death of those closest to us — is a scar that may never heal for some.
For many cancer survivors, it was a sense of deja vu. For those living with, and being treated for cancer, it turned an already devastating experience into a one-two gut punch, compounding the misery many were already struggling with.
Alex Smith is the executive director at the Wellspring Chinguacousy Foundation, a cancer-support organization that provides a variety of wellness programs for those battling cancer. He’s seen firsthand how those battling the disease throughout the COVID-19 pandemic have been impacted.
“You could be in a room full of loved ones and still feel alone,” Smith says of those battling cancer. “Friends and family are great, but they are well, they are going to school, they are going to work, they are carrying on. So they often feel a sense of being alone.”
To combat this sense of isolation and the associated mental health toll, Wellspring offers a variety of programs geared around healing the body and the mind of those fighting cancer. Group therapy with those in similar situations, case workers who have either survived a cancer diagnosis of their own or have a loved one or partner who has; fitness programs and access to dieticians or registered physiotherapists — all free of charge.
There has become an increasing demand for these types of programs in recent years, not only because more and more people are receiving cancer diagnoses, but because more and more people are surviving them, creating a need for assistance in managing the effects of treatment and turning the corner toward recovery.
According to the Canadian Cancer Society, cancer is the leading cause of death in Canada, responsible for 28 percent of all deaths in the country. Data show 2 in 5 Canadians will develop cancer in their lifetime; 26 percent of men and 22 percent of women are expected to die from it.
As scary as the numbers are, it is an improvement from previous years as cancer mortality peaked in the late 1980s, and has decreased 37 percent in men and 22 percent in women since 1988.
“It’s a shame that there’s that many people affected by cancer, but that’s the reality of life these days,” says Karen Nichols, a volunteer with Wellspring, in a promotional video. “Oncology at Brampton Civic is packed every time you go…A place like Wellspring, it’s great that they’re all coming here.”
When COVID-19 closed the world down in March 2020, many of the services, like those offered by Wellspring, were shuttered for in-person visits.
“What we heard back was (our members) felt extra vulnerable because of their compromised immune systems and comorbidities. So they were even more fearful of venturing out,” Smith says.
But for many of those fighting cancer, staying at home is not always an option when hospitals are the only place they can receive treatment.
“They had to go, they have no choice, knowing that COVID patients are being treated in the same facility,” Smith says. “So all of those things were just add-ons to the usual emotional struggles that our members face.”
What’s worse, many of them also had surgeries or procedures delayed as a result of the pandemic. According to data from the Canadian Institute for Health Information, there were approximately 560,000 fewer surgeries between March 2020 and June 2021.
With support from Wellspring Canada, the parent organization, Smith says Brampton was able to have a full roster of programs shifted online within one week of lockdowns in March 2020. There were certainly issues, he admits, especially with connecting to those members who may not have had the tech savvy to connect online.
“We really didn’t have a playbook to refer to, but we moved pretty quick,” Smith says. “It went fairly well, but change is hard.”
The online experience does not always match up to visiting in person. “They very much enjoy the social aspect, the interactive aspect to it. It’s a great excuse to get out of the house and it does combat their isolation.”
The pandemic shifted much of the cancer-support programming offered by Wellspring Chinguacousy Foundation online.
(Photo from Wellspring Chinguacousy Foundation)
But the online shift has also opened the door for those who may not have been accessing programming before, especially those for whom movement or transportation is a significant barrier, allowing Wellspring to better assist previously under-served areas. In Ontario, 80 percent of caregivers are a friend or family member, this increased access online has the ripple effect of assisting them as well by relieving some of the burden of care.
According to Wellspring, many of the online programs are a first-of-their-kind in Canada geared specifically to cancer patients, including the organizations Cancer and Exercise program, which creates tailored workout plans that better prepares a person’s body for treatments, symptom management and recovery; its Money Matters program, offering financial guidance to those who may be struggling to pay for drugs or other assistance as a result of having to take leave after their diagnosis (or laid off during the pandemic); and its pair of workplace programs, which help people get back to work following their cancer battle.
Cancer, and the associated treatment, take a heavy toll on the human body. But Wellspring Chinguacousy’s efforts to shift these programs online during the pandemic has helped make life easier, and healthier, for thousands of people battling cancer in Brampton and surrounding area.
A 2017 study found that the exercise programs offered by Wellspring led to “significant improvements in cancer-related fatigue…social well-being, systolic blood pressure, balance and physical activity volume.”
“During the transition phase (the latter part of the 13-month exercise program) health-related quality of life and emotional well-being improved significantly,” the study states.
“The need is definitely here. So what makes us unique is that we don’t have any barriers,” Smith says, explaining there are no costs or referral necessary to access Wellspring’s programming.
Email: [email protected]
COVID-19 is impacting all Canadians. At a time when vital public information is needed by everyone, The Pointer has taken down our paywall on all stories relating to the pandemic and those of public interest to ensure every resident of Brampton and Mississauga has access to the facts. For those who are able, we encourage you to consider a subscription. This will help us report on important public interest issues the community needs to know about now more than ever. You can register for a 30-day free trial HERE. Thereafter, The Pointer will charge $10 a month and you can cancel any time right on the website. Thank you
Submit a correction about this story