Cancer survivor pays it forward

December 14, 2015

Volunteer shares courage, inspires new patients at Cross

Sharing time and hope at the Cross Cancer Institute are, from left: facilitator Mary Delane; patient Eileen Paul; family member Jugesh Mehta, patient Ivan Lush (patient) and Garfield Eckert, a cancer survivor and facilitator volunteer who now helps new Cross arrivals.

Story by Kristin Bernhard; Photo by Tahneen Luedee

EDMONTON — A cancer diagnosis is easily one of the most difficult moments in a person’s life. Fear and anxiety loom large, as patients and family members seek to navigate a new world.

Garfield Eckert, diagnosed with colon cancer in 1997, knows firsthand the worry that comes with such a diagnosis.

“When I was first diagnosed with cancer I was scared,“ says the 81-year-old Edmontonian.

“People all around me were telling stories about cancer and how bad the disease was and how it was going to kill me, but I realized that when it was all said and done that none of it was true, and I need to share that.”

And share he does, 18 years later as a cancer survivor and volunteer for the Cross Cancer Institute (CCI) at New Patient Information (NPI) Sessions.

An NPI Session is a patient-and-family focused orientation that aims to answer basic questions about coping with the new diagnosis and the process of care at the facility.

Deborah McTaggart-Baird, Manager of Volunteer Resources at the CCI and NPI Session coordinator, says the program — which offers information and support to people through the beginning of their journey — is presented by a volunteer facilitator and a volunteer cancer survivor.

“New patients learn not only how to get around the CCI but also what programs and services will be available to them.”

Being able to relate to someone who has lived through cancer is valuable for those attending the session as well as those leading it.

“I feel close to the people who come to the sessions,” says Eckert, “I can see their reactions which are the same as mine when I first had cancer.”

“When they see a cancer survivor standing in front of them, sharing their story, you can see that sense of hope it provides.” Research suggests that peer support can improve quality of life for cancer patients. An NPI session brings the reassurance and hope that comes from speaking to someone who’s been there.

McTaggart-Baird says all volunteers emphasize that each person’s experience will be different.

“It’s always unique to the individual,” says McTaggart-Baird. “This reality, however, does not diminish the power of having a person who has dealt with cancer share some of the coping strategies that worked for them.”

Eckert began volunteering at the CCI in 2002 because he wanted to ensure new patients had access to the kind of information that he did not at the time of his diagnosis.

“I would have loved to have someone there to stand up in front of me and tell me, ‘hey, it isn’t as bad as you think it is,’ ” he says. Many of the new patients in Eckert’s sessions are over 50, which inspires him even more.

“When we were younger, cancer was almost a death sentence, I certainly thought it was for me at first,” adds Eckert, “and some of us still have that idea about cancer. But I try real hard to tell people, when I am in front of them talking, that cancer is no longer the disease it was 10 or 20 years ago.”

Eckert believes that some people who attend the session come believing that cancer cannot be cured.

“You have to convince them that it is possible, that I am one of those people who made it, who we didn’t think would.”

Eckert often reflects on the patients he’s met, and their reactions to his session.

“I had one lady come and tell me that she was scared out of her wits before coming to the session,” says Eckert, “but she told me that after hearing what we had to say that ‘now, she can go ahead with it, she can face her treatments, she felt better prepared.’”

When Eckert first volunteered with the NPI, he figured he would put in a few years and quit — but 13 years later, he still enjoys every moment.

“The day that I think that I’m not helping patients, I will gladly step down,” he says. “This is not about me, this is for them.” Any patient or family member can register for a New Patient Information Session by dropping by the Cancer Information Centre on the main level (by the escalators) at the Cross Cancer Institute; or by calling 780-432-8456. Sessions take place Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays at 10 a.m.