NEWS FEATURE: Cancer and Families, Part 2

Colwood family was plunged into chaos with diagnosis

The treetop adventures at WildPlay in the West Shore are just one of the many outings that the B.C. Childhood Cancer Parents Association’s Family Support Program offers to families going through pediatric cancer treatment. The events give kids and their families the chance to escape the hospital and just have fun for an afternoon.

This is part 2 of 3 in a series in which the Goldstream News Gazette looks at the effect childhood cancer has on a family, from the devastating diagnosis to the financial and emotional hardships that follow. We also take a look at where families can get help, and the special relationships that form between health–care professionals and families.

Three years ago, Noreen Bekropoulos’s family was plunged into the chaos of cancer treatment when her 13-year-old son, the youngest of five siblings, was diagnosed with Hodgkins lymphoma.

Bekropoulos, a longtime Colwood resident who had dealt with her own diagnosis of breast cancer just six years previously, was “in total shock” and then thought, “Here we go again.”

Her son had been dealing with a persistent cough that didn’t respond to medication or puffers, and finally the doctor decided to order an X-ray, she remembers.

“She said they rarely do X-rays on kids. And then they found a mass.”

All classification and staging of pediatric cancers is done at the B.C. Children’s Hospital, so Bekropoulos and her son were on a helicopter to the mainland within minutes of the diagnosis, with a nearly dead cell phone and not even a debit card in her purse. She remembers a social worker from the hospital giving her food vouchers and coupons for gas just before they took off.

“That was the only thing I had going to Vancouver.”

This frantic whirlwind of activity is all too common, with families being uprooted and everything put on hold while a treatment plan is sorted out.

“I was in total shock,” she adds. “Parents who are going through it, you’re just like a horse with blinders on. You’re just breathing.”

Families can be fractured by a diagnosis of childhood cancer, by the incredible financial strain and by the destruction of any sense of normalcy in their day to day lives.

Emotional support is vital for the whole family, says Bekropoulos, and connecting with other parents can be a lifeline.

“Unless you’ve been in that situation, you have no idea what it’s like. You do get what you need (from the doctors and nurses), but you don’t get that outreach of emotional support,” she says.

That’s where the Vancouver Island Family Support Program comes in. An offshoot of the B.C. Childhood Cancer Parents Association, the Family Support Program brings parents together in support groups, funds outings for the whole family to get away from the hospital environment, and also supplies the food vouchers and emergency funds that help get families through those first few devastating days.

The coupons and vouchers that were pressed into Bekropoulos’s hands as she boarded the helicopter came from the Family Support Program, though she knew barely anything about the organization at the time.

Her whole family, including the son in active treatment – now 17, he asked that his name not be used for this story, nor any photos – were also able to participate in a WildPlay romp. It’s one of many sponsored outdoor adventures that help kids just be kids for an afternoon and leave behind the hospital for a few hours.

“When you go through cancer, it’s your whole family,” says Bekropoulos. “Getting out and connecting with people who have gone through it, meeting other parents, it breaks the isolation. It’s a group that understands your needs and what you’re going through.”

She urges any family going through childhood cancer to contact the organization immediately.

“Realize there is help while you’re going through it, and you’re not the only one in this isolation,” she says. “Don’t wait to reach out.”

For more information, visit bcccpa.org.

acowan@goldstreamgazette.com

Coming up in the Nov. 5 issue of the Gazette:

Anne Carrelli is a pediatric oncology nurse at Victoria General Hospital. She’s part of a team of nurses, doctors and social workers who treat children with cancer. “You can’t help but get invested in every family, because kids are kids – and they just want to get better,” Carrelli says.