Doreen Edward, Founder of VOBOC, was diagnosed with stage 3 colorectal cancer. I was an active woman with a thriving career. I was graced with a loving husband and two wonderful young girls. But frankly, I didn’t expect to beat this disease. While my faith was of great comfort, I just praised that I would live long enough to spend more time with my children, Robyn and Jen, to help prepare them for the future.
Volunteering at Cedars CanSupport
Doreen began volunteering at the Cedars CanSupport Program at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal. Thanks to the encouragement of its coordinator, Maryse Carignan, and assistant, Monique Tremblay, Doreen created a fun craft program for oncology patients. You could find her bouncing down the halls donned in brightly decorated, crazy hats and pushing a craft cart around the oncology floors. Patients and medical teams loved them, as they were a great way to reach out to patients.
Doreen Edward Cont’d
“I was declared cured. Some call it a miracle. Still, I felt a bit lost. Overcoming cancer should have set me free. But somehow, it didn’t. from my safe place as a survivor, I looked back on my experience with one huge question on my mind: why was I spared and for what purpose? Did I have a purpose at all? Some may find it odd that this existential question came two years after it had all begun. Why had I been so lucky to make it past this cancer when so many others had not? Life until then had been more than fulfilling. I was blessed with a great family, wonderful friends and a nurturing church community. I had survived cancer and it had changed me profoundly. I tried to be active. I tried to help others. But something greater was missing.
In my searching, slowly it became clear that somehow there was a plan out there for me. What followed caused a dramatic shift in how I viewed life and the world. Purely financial goals no longer mattered. Instead, I was driven by a desire to help other cancer patients in any way I could. Most cancer survivors do find their own unique way of giving back. Therefore, with the blessing of my loving husband, Ian, I decided to leave my career, and I never looked back.”
VOBOC’s Beginnings – Meet Andrew
The day before Valentine’s Day, while pushing around the craft cart at the hospital, Doreen saw a young man, Andrew, with a bald head. She invited him to make a valentine craft while waiting for his treatment. When asking who he was making it for, he responded “my bride.” After months passed, Doreen got to know Andrew as he underwent chemotherapy. One day, as Doreen sat on her deck at her cottage, she could not stop thinking about him.
It was clear that he wasn’t doing so well. Doreen thought of his battle and about all the time he had to spend in the hospital. How could this young couple, so much in love, be robbed of the chance to spend time together outside of this disease?
Andrew & “The Chateau Doreen”
Doreen decided to lend Andrew and his wife, Andrea, her cottage so they could escape the sterile hospital walls and spend some quiet time alone together in a beautiful and peaceful environment. Andrew and Andrea spent that weekend connecting as a couple while soaking up the great outdoors.
The weekend worked out so well. Doreen thought to herself, how could we do this? How could something like this work for others? How could it help, really help, even more patients and families escape their thoughts of cancer? Doreen started thinking out loud and out of the box.
It was at this moment; Doreen found her purpose for surviving cancer. VOBOC.
VOBOC Taking Shape
Soon after, Doreen stayed laying the foundations of what would become VOBOC.
As the idea took shape, dear friends like Josée Legault, Gwen Vineberg, Dr. Ina Cummings, jumped on to form the first board of directors. Dr. Henry Shibata became our medical advisor.
VOBOC Breaks Ground
VOBOC becomes federally incorporated and helps adults Venture Out Beyond Our Cancer.
The First of Its Kind
VOBOC Becomes a registered charitable organization – the first one of its kind in Canada. VOBOC’s mission was to provide all adult cancer patients with the opportunity to take a break from their illness. At the time, we knew we couldn’t change the final outcome for patients – but there was a definite joy and comfort in knowing that we could help patients create their own new memories for themselves as well as their families inside their cancer experience.
VOBOC Contest Box
VOBOC offered simple treats and diversions, such as restaurant gift certificates and weekend getaways. Patients completed a free ballot and placed it into the VOBOC Contest Box at any of the adult sites of the McGill University Health Center (MUHC) hospitals. Winners were then selected by random draw.
VOBOC Begins Granting Special & Last Requests in Palliative Care
The success of the Venturing Out Diversion’s program led to the launching of a new free service as VOBOC began to receive demands to grant special requests for patients in palliative care.
We received a request from the medical team of a 42-year-old patient to pay for her ambulance ride to and from the hospital so that she could simply go home for a few hours. In spite of being terribly ill, she wanted to go home to put her papers in order and say goodbye to her father. She didn’t want her father to come to the hospital because he always got lost taking the bus.
It was very humbling to be able to grant such a simple request as a ride home.
VOBOC’s Presence in Hospitals
Within hospitals, VOBOC soon became known as a resource and a means to have such requests granted. We were able to respond to the needs of patients through the collective effort of countless family members, friends, volunteers, hospital staff, the community and fundraising initiatives. Our goal was to make sure that we could and would fulfill every Special Request while still offering hundreds of patients’ fun, free Venturing Out Diversions every year.
One contest winner, a young woman named Debbie, changed VOBOC forever. She’d won tickets to attend a figure skating competition. She was extremely grateful, as she was able to take along her youngest son to share in the experience, which was once her passion.
Debbie was curious about how VOBOC could afford to give away all these expensive prizes.
“You must need money or help – I can help.” she said. She told Doreen that she was a painter and that she reproduced some of her paintings to make note cards. She generously offered to let us use one of her paintings to make cards that we could then sell to raise more funds to help more patients. It was a great idea!
The Gift of Art
Following Debbie’s idea, we also asked other people touched by cancer to submit their own works of art. The money raised from selling the note cards went to make holiday baskets for delivery to hospital patients who were too ill to go home for Christmas Eve. This is a service we will proudly provide every year to our partnered hospitals, as well as several palliative care residences. Patients tell us there is such a special feeling when you receive something so beautiful and so unexpected from a perfect stranger.
The Lost Tribe
The Adolescent and Young Adult (AYA) Oncology Program was set up by McGill University under the direction of oncologist, Dr. Petr Kavan. This emerging cancer population (aged 15-44), was a group Dr. Kavan called “The Lost Tribe”. He named it so because of the uniqueness of this cancer population, their distinct needs and the services that were lacking for them.
The AYA McGill Program was designed to meet the unique needs of youth by bringing in specialists and resources to help them through their whole cancer experience.
The First Vo-Pak
One day, Doreen was approached by a nurse named Christine Leblanc. She was concerned about a cancer patient in her oncology unit, a young man, who was 19 years old. She described him as almost homeless. She said that he wasn’t always coming in for his treatments and was in need of some positive changes in his life.
He had scraps of paper hanging out of his pockets and a tattered old bag of some kind. Doreen introduced herself to the young man, and they chatted. When asked how things were going, he responded with “Ok, but I hate coming here.” She told him that if he came in for his treatment the following week, she would bring him a surprise.
When Doreen left the hospital that day, she went to buy a backpack and other items: pajamas, underwear, t-shirts, socks, a VOBOC cap, toiletries, gift cards to restaurants, essentially anything that would be useful to him during his hospital stay.
The following week, when he returned to the hospital for treatment, he was handed the backpack. He opened it and started emptying its contents. He got more and more excited with each item he took out. In the back, were other patients who looked at the backpack with curiosity and excitement.
Doreen went home thinking about the delight on the boy’s face, and the curiosity of other patients. She thought; wouldn’t it be cool to bring in backpacks for all the other young patients?
The Vo-Pak Program is Launched
There were multiple discussions with medical teams about what they thought about VOBOC supplying backpacks to their young patients. They were on board, without a doubt.
Together, we brainstormed different elements to put in the backpack. The list grew and grew.
This is how the new Vo-Pak (Venturing Out Backpack) Program began. Vo-Paks were, and still are today, comprised of a Medical Education Kit, a Resource and Link Kit, a Hospital Comfort Kit, an Awareness Tool Kit, and a Venturing Out Kit, which has such things as iTunes and restaurant gift cards, as well as vouchers for free diversions to help youth escape their thoughts of cancer to just feel “normal” again.
It seemed that every week VOBOC was being asked to meet another new young patient. This new program seemed to be a great way to welcome young patients to the hospital on their first day of treatment. It really set a different tone for the beginnings of their cancer journey.
VOBOC Introduces 3 Programs to a Fourth Hospital
We introduced our Venturing Out Program, Granting of Special Requests and the AYA Vo-Pak Program to the Lakeshore General Hospital. As this was the hospital who treated Doreen during her diagnosis, this was another empowering way to give back.
Just like the MUHC, the Lakeshore oncology team was thrilled to have their patients win weekend getaways and gift certificates.
Doreen was doing rounds in one of the hospitals when she encountered a woman named Maureen. She was a really good golfer. Doreen, who had just started golfing herself, talked about how much she loved swinging her clubs. Maureen asked her to show her swing – it was a baseball/soccer/java throwing kind of a swing. “You need a little help with that,” she said. Doreen asked her to help. Maureen said, “Well I’m here at this time every day so come by one time.”
Three days later, Doreen showed up with her 7 Iron and really surprised her. “Why did you bring that club?” She asked. Doreen was really embarrassed. She had never asked anything of any cancer patient before; she was angry with herself for taking advantage of such a quiet woman. “You need a club – I have my cane,” she said, laughing.
With her cane, she gave Doreen her first golf swinging lesson right there in the radio-oncology waiting room, with everyone watching. Soon enough, she was teaching a doctor how to master a smooth golf swing.
After multiple lessons, the two became friends. Maureen represents all the silent patients who quietly accept their treatment, never complain, never ask for anything, are always helpful to staff and always make the best of whatever this difficult battle demands. Quiet, private courage.
VOBOC Finds a Niche
VOBOC trims its free services to focus exclusively upon older Adolescents and Young Adults (AYA) Oncology patients. At the time, we were offering our three free services at four hospitals: Royal Victoria, Montreal General, Montreal Neurological, Lakeshore General. VOBOC was being called to the Royal Vic more frequently to meet young adults who were in need of special assistance. It was tough to keep up with the growing demand from the AYA population and we seemed to have our resources and energy stretched to the maximum.
Doreen met Louise after her third bout with breast cancer. She’d heard about the quiet work that VOBOC was doing and wanted to become a volunteer. She had such enthusiasm; you couldn’t resist her energy. She shadowed Doreen at the hospital several times to see how we delivered our services.
She was taking notes of everything. “Why are you offering so many services? You can’t do it all!” She’d always say. The two became great friends, Doreen valued her instincts and business acumen.
And so, at our five-year review, with Louise’s assistance, the VOBOC board decided to narrow our services and focus on the underserved AYA population aged 15 to 39.
Discovery of Léon
Louise then introduced VOBOC to the ad agency, Cundari, which helped to create the new mascot, Léon – a lion that symbolizes the courage every cancer patient has within them.
VOBOC Expands into JGH
VOBOC expanded and introduced its two services for the AYA population into yet another McGill oncology centre: the Segal Cancer Centre at the Sir Mortimer B. Davis of the Jewish General Hospital. The medical teams embraced VOBOC as we quickly began delivering Vo-Paks, granting Special Requests and offering free diversions to their young patients.
Another inspiring patient for VOBOC is Lara. A young teacher, at the beginning of her dream career, was diagnosed with cancer. Admitted to the hospital as a new patient, Lara received her Vo-Pak from her medical team. She was thrilled and went out of her way to let us know by asking VOBOC to visit her.
Lara’s active mind was forever thinking of items that could be added to the backpack to make it even better. As weeks past during hospitalization, Lara and her dad would play a special game late at night; they would name more essential items that needed to be part of the Vo-Pak. She shared her ideas with Doreen, with pure excitement. She shared her compassion with other patients and everyone she encountered. She inspired people around her to do better.
Cancer Strikes Again
Our vision for VOBOC was to expand into another hospital. As a board, we were working towards that goal when Doreen was struck again with cancer in June of 2010. No one ever plans for cancer – and certainly not when you are busy doing other things. Cancer forced Doreen to the sidelines. But it allowed the VOBOC board to find its place, offering it room to grow and become much stronger. It is probably one of the best blessings that have come out of this new cancer experience.
The Lara Information Kit
When Lara died shortly before Christmas in 2009, her family raised money for the “Friends of Lara Fund” and they donated it to VOBOC. The funds are being used to create a resource kit called the “Lara Information Kit.” It contains tools and resources to help patients navigate through the cancer experience.