This World Cancer Day, the BC Cancer Foundation is bringing awareness to the role each of us can play in closing the cancer care gap. We are sharing stories of hope and progress, made possible in part by philanthropic and community support, to enhance equitable access to cancer care in every corner of the province.
Mistrust of the healthcare system due to a long history of racism, cultural differences, language barriers and a frequent need to travel long distances, all create a uniquely challenging experience for Indigenous peoples facing cancer. These barriers not only effect their quality of life throughout their cancer journey but can lead to more negative outcomes.
At each BC Cancer centre, there are Indigenous Patient Navigators (IPNs) working to create a more culturally safe and trauma-informed experience. The IPNs support Indigenous patients by addressing cultural and spiritual needs, helping arrange access to health care services, and working with Indigenous and non-Indigenous health systems and community partners.
BC Cancer – Surrey IPN Vanessa Prescott shares that the BC Cancer Foundation’s Indigenous Patient Relief Fund has been a huge support in her work, providing cultural and financial essentials that are not covered by any other health program. IPNs can request access to funds to cover a broad range of items including grocery cards, travel vouchers, and treatment-related expenses such as medical supplies, nutritional supplements, and traditional medicines.
Vanessa is sharing stories from two patients to illustrate the impact of the fund and give thanks to the donors who have supported it.
Mama Crow – Healing Together
“Call me Mama Crow” she said, after letting me know that I was one of the first people “in the system” (the healthcare system) that she trusts.
Mama Crow is a residential school survivor and this was her second time going through cancer treatment.
This time, she questioned her spirit’s ability to endure six weeks of treatment. Through the Indigenous Patient Relief Fund, we were able to offer support in the form of gas cards, frozen meal delivery service, as well as a blender and smoothie ingredients when she was at risk of requiring a feeding tube. We also gave her celebratory flowers in BC Cancer purple and blue to commemorate her final day of treatment.
She said, “Creator is putting people, places, and things in front of me – like you!”
Mama Crow continues to be an inspiration to me, with her hilarious humour ever present in her medicine basket. She never lost her sense of humour all throughout even the toughest parts of her treatment. Her good energy spread through the radiation waiting area, uniting patients from all different walks of health and life, with laughter like in the movie The Breakfast Club.
On her final day of treatment, just before the holidays, Mama Crow brought a wrapped present for each of the department areas to express her gratitude and offer a gesture of reciprocity. She said that a part of her felt sad to be finished treatment because she made such a family at BC Cancer among the other patients, who all lifted each other up.
Now that Mama Crow is finished treatment we plan to access the Indigenous Patient Relief Fund to connect her with traditional medicines that will continue to heal her lungs and spirit.
“Can I still keep you after?” she asks me.
Together is how we heal.
Janille Lincoln – Strength in Family
Janille Lincoln is Nisga’a First Nation. As a self-governing nation, its members are not eligible for First Nations Health Benefits. Though Nisga’a Valley Health Authority was able to help with travel costs, they were not able to support with accommodation for her escort, her sister Corrine, who was travelling from Terrace to Vancouver.
Cultural and spiritual aspects of Indigenous cancer journeys often involve family and many teachings say for those going through transitions and hard times to not do so alone.
We were getting down to the wire with Janille’s treatment dates and her treatment may not have been possible if the Indigenous Patient Relief Fund was not able to step in and support her with accommodation for her escort, when no other authority could provide relief funds.
Over the course of many back and forth conversations with both Janille and Corinne, I noticed that like me, they both said “later” instead of goodbye each time we ended our phone calls. This was a teaching shared with me by another Nisga’a resident I am close with from my last job as a Health & Wellness Worker.
“We don’t say goodbye because goodbye is too final, instead we say ‘later’,” she had said.
Part of this is acknowledging that there are too many goodbyes in Indigenous communities, with the number of deaths affecting our people. When we say “later” it is “I will see you later” “I will see you again.”
In realizing that this resident was also from Terrace, I asked the sisters if they happened to know someone named Effie, the Nisga’a resident I met at my previous job. It turns out that my beloved Effie is the sisters’ niece!
It was incredible to be able to help reunite the family during a time where culturally we’ve been taught to stick together.
I made Effie a cappuccino and picked her up in my new Bronco – she was proud to see me in my new role, as Indigenous Patient Navigator with my new wheels.
I delivered her to her aunties and we all found renewed strength and hope in each other’s light.
As our teachings say, during this transition Janille was not alone. Family gives us strength
Family gives us strength.