On Sept. 9, the 10th annual Paddle for Health will see canoers, kayakers, paddle-boarders and more take to the sea from Willows Beach in a wraparound paddle to Cadboro Bay and back.
Led by Don Lowther, organizer of the annual paddle, formerly Kayak for the Cure, all participants, repeat and new, adult and youth, arrive dedicated to the same cause: Enhancing the lives of cancer patients and their families. Funds raised from 2017’s paddle go through the Coast to Coast Against Cancer Foundation to this year’s recipient the first time, Island Kids Cancer Association. Founded in December 2016 and coordinated by Susan Kerr, former Vancouver Island liaison for B.C. Childhood Cancer Parents Association, the new organization and its team of volunteers facilitates connections between island-based families affected by childhood cancer and provides emergency financial assistance.
Kerr, a mother of two, began advocating for the needs of Vancouver Island families with sick children when her son was diagnosed 12 years ago. Only five years old, Jacob and his family would travel to and from BC Children’s Hospital in Vancouver; one year, Kerr said, making 40 round-trips total. But this kind of back-and-forth routine isn’t unusual for Vancouver Island families with sick children, she said.
“We live on a beautiful island, but it is an island, and at that time, we did not have a pediatric oncologist here,” Kerr said. That meant that all Jacob’s testing and treatments had to be carried out at BC Children’s Hospital.
Kerr quickly realized the isolating nature of living on the island with a child with cancer, not only due to the lack of pediatric oncologists at the time, but due to the lack of connection to others. Staying at Ronald McDonald House in Vancouver, she and her family were able to form friendships and make meaningful connections; however, upon returning home, they had no knowledge of local families in similar situations.
“What I found, and what I found working with families for the past ten years, is sometimes, you go into your own shell of isolation. It’s not something you want to do, but it’s a kind of self-preservation,” she said. “You have a form of post-traumatic stress disorder, because you’re looking at your child having a life-threatening illness.” That’s why being able to build and keep connections with other families affected by cancer is so important, she said. Island Kids Cancer offers group programs for families who have children with cancer, families who have lost children with cancer, and families whose children have survived cancer. Programs are available for younger affected children and an adolescent and adult program has been recently added.
Even with those connections, Kerr said, finances can prove a culprit for family stress. During the time Jacob was in and out of hospital receiving treatment, she was a stay-at-home mother and her husband quit his job to provide support and be closer to his son. Initially, the family thought the husband could afford to lose six months of work while Jacob received intensive chemotherapy, but the treatment took closer to a year and a half.
“You find that parents are going to be there for their kids … Financially, you still need to put food on the table,” Kerr said. Financial need sparked the beginnings of her advocacy, as she appealed to banks and local politicians about the financial needs of Vancouver Island families affected by childhood cancer. Today, Island Kids Cancer partners with Peninsula CO-OP in offering emergency financial assistance to families affected by childhood cancer, allowing fuel and grocery vouchers to be distributed when needed.
As a whole, Kerr said, the Island Kids Cancer Association aims to help every family affected. The association’s board contains a cancer survivor, pediatric oncologist, community members and parents of children with cancer.
Kerr added that cancer is often a lifelong journey for families. Though her son recovered years ago, he relapsed February of this year and had to undergo treatment and pelvic surgery in March. Jacob graduated high school this summer and will receive physiotherapy for the next year.
“We’ve been reminded once again just how important it is to keep connections,” Kerr said. “This journey is a very specific and intense journey … But there’s always hope and healing, and hope and healing occur as a part of a supportive community.”
Kerr and her family will show at the Paddle for Health Sept. 9. To register to take part in the event, visit paddleforhealth.ca.