Seven or eight years ago, if offered a chance to volunteer in a cancer treatment center I might well have said, “No, thank you.” In the years just before that, the disease had hit my immediate family hard. I had breast cancer, a very different kind from the one I was treated for 15 years earlier (I finished treatment in January 2008). Among my mother and two of my three brothers, there had been five cancer diagnoses. My husband and I were primary caregivers for my youngest brother, who died in January 2009, eleven months after learning that he had stage 4 colon cancer. Needless to say, my older brother and I feel fortunate to be survivors.
By 2017, after I had retired from a demanding HR career and was figuring out how to spend my time, I was ready to think about how I could support other people dealing with cancer. I learned about volunteering through the American Cancer Society, which had recently begun a partnership with the Cancer Education Center at Swedish Cancer Institute. My role here involves working in the center, helping patients and family/friends to find information, resources or products they are looking for, and making rounds on the chemo units in order to connect with patients during treatment.
Sometimes, I provide tangible things, like the free wigs we give to women who are losing their hair, or printed information about the many support services available here. At other times, I am a listening ear. There have been patients I see multiple times—like the man who gave me a good tip about a restaurant favored by locals in Dubai, where I was going to spend a couple of days (I took him up on his tip and had a great meal in a restaurant where I was the only tourist). Other times, I will see someone only once and they will share something I learn from and will not forget, often about living your life fully when cancer is part of it.
Either way, volunteering here is a privilege. I am often struck by the strength and humor patients and their supporters display. I have witnessed sadness, tears and anger at times, but also acceptance, grace, and gratitude. I have been touched by how delighted people are by small things, like the hats we give away because a volunteer somewhere else knitted them with cancer patients in mind. Same for Northwest Hope and Healing Baskets, cookbooks, and wigs, even if finding the right one means trying a Farrah Fawcett look from the ‘80’s first. Same also for a word of support, or a suggestion based on an experience that rings true.
I also appreciate that the hard-working Education Center staff has made me feel like part of the team, as has Cyndi Arthur, who manages the volunteer services at Swedish First Hill. I am amazed by how many staff members say “thank you” when they learn that I am a volunteer. In a big system like Swedish, I did not expect to be noticed, especially by people so busy with patient care. My thanks to all of them for the welcome, and most importantly for the essential work that they do. I am grateful for the chance to use my own experience and that of my family to support others living with the uncertainties of cancer.
If you would like to learn more about volunteer opportunities, our Cancer Education Centers or Supportive Care Services, please connect with us; call 206-386-3200, send an email or stop by one of our locations.