Cancer Survivorship, Clubhouse Style

I am about to end two years of finding inspirational and informative speakers for the monthly morning lectures at Abbottsford House in the Glebe, here in Ottawa.  I usually ask people I already know, but for February, I asked the head of the Ottawa Cancer Foundation, Linda Eagan, who is still far from becoming a senior.  She is a veteran of fundraising, and has been touched by cancer. I heard her talk at a Council on Aging Lunch-n-Learn last fall.

Ottawa is lucky to have been offered funds by the Bloch Foundation of the U.S.  who draws on the legacy of the H+R Block tax business, a grant to build a park to celebrate the successful efforts of those who survive cancer, now the majority.  They asked the Ottawa Cancer Foundation to find surplus land that had good visibility.  What they found was a triangle of land bordered by three arterial roads, one of them Alta Vista Drive, whose realignment 20-odd years ago created this land “orphan.”  It is  not far from the Ottawa Cancer Centre at the Ottawa Hospital.  It is an amazing place with inspiring architecture, lots of grass, and inspirational sayings to emphasize that cancer is now being survived by more people than succumb to it.

Linda and her board didn’t stop there.  They looked at their staid offices in leased quarters not far from downtown, midway between the two main campuses of the Cancer Centre, and at the 37 associations of survivors and families working disparately on increasing the survivor rate, and they realized that they wanted to build a building for their own offices, for the many sister organizations, and for the programs they all ran, or would run if they had the space.  [As I recounted here earlier this year, soon after actor Michael Douglas, announced his tumour at the base of his tongue (the same location as mine), I, too am a survivor.  Grateful but smart enough to know that I may not have seen the last of the disease, including for my family.]

Linda talked about the good luck of the foundation in finding two building lots in the 1960’s neighbourhood directly adjacent to the park, right off Alta Vista Drive.  They had been owned by the family of a couple who were about to dispose of them.  Someone in the Cancer-survivor network heard about them and asked the family to hold off for a few months to allow Linda and her volunteers to fashion a proposal that would fit the land.  The sellers saw the resulting plans and not only agreed to sell, but to not ask for a premium for what would be an larger institutional land use.

Although the building is not yet finished, Linda was able to describe to the assembled Abbottforders what their Cancer Survivorship Centre would be like.  She pointed out that the treatment program usually focuses, as it should, on the cancerous growth, and it leaves the patient often left without full understanding of what is going on, and not often supported in the various impacts on their families, work, and community responsibilities.  Linda talked about recruiting and training “navigators” to fill the gap.  She also wanted to have a wide array of resources, such as exercise equipment, written material, and lists of local and web-based resources to meet any need patients felt.  As an example, she mentioned the discussion she had with me about improving the walking link to the pathway system that flanks the nearby Rideau River via the main transitway station at Hurdman, to allow for clubhouse visitors to do long walks based on information from the house’s resources.  [Some patients might even consider walking to their treatment at the Centre from Hurdman (saving a bus transfer, since no direct bus link exists from downtown) through the park, and into the health campus’ northern side that has a large swatch of trees and a nice pathway linking the neighbourhood.]

What I found most exciting about her foundation’s work is the research they are supporting.  Dr. John Bell, now based in Ottawa, is recognized world-wide for his progress in research the possible existence of a virus that might attack abnormal cell growth that gets beyond the size that the body can successfully fight — without the toxic effects of chemo and radiation.  She explained to the audience, half of which are themselves cancer survivors, how early experiments with mice have proved to be very successful.  Clinical trials in Ottawa and other cities — first with “faint hope” patients — are being designed now.  Obviously, this disease has met its match in terms of donations from Ottawans to help lead a new promising route to finally putting this disease into the category of the diseases that once were so devastating: diptheria, whooping cough, and measles.

This is a remarkable development, since cancer is not a single disease, but 300, all involving aberrant cell growth.  But the research suggests that this special virus could attack all or most of them.

There is a downside to this research.  It, if successful, could be seen by those diagnosed with cancer as that “magic bullett,” reducing the need to follow the dual practices of early detection and healthful lifestyle practices.  I noticed how different cancer treatment I had received seven years ago was from the more recent treatment I received soon after I was disagnosed with Type II diabetes.  The former was passive, letting the doctors and technicians follow the course of treatment you had approved; while the latter was active, very dependent on my daily choices for eating, exercise, and avoiding stress.  It is therapeutic to be able to help with your own diagnosis and recovery.

It is nice to know that by frequenting the new ‘clubhouse,’ I will experience both.


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