By Marylin Smith Carsley

As the pandemic persists and COVID-19 fatigue sets in, the needs of cancer patients are as pressing as ever. In many ways, the public health recommendations for social distancing and isolation deepen the already emotionally taxing toll of being a cancer patient. Fortunately, Hope & Cope’s volunteers are as focused and committed as ever, determined to use every available technological platform to reach out to patients, and bring them some sense of normalcy and support as they endure treatment.

Supporting patients virtually has required a learning curve of sorts- and the Hope & Cope team has risen to the occasion. A team of approximately 30 individuals has been administering trainings and webinars to adapt the programs usually offered at the Wellness Centre and in the hospital to an online platform. As always, the volunteers have gone above and beyond. They have participated in lengthy trainings to bridge the virtual gap, while continually checking in on patients, the status of their treatment, their symptoms and generally, how they’re managing. Our amazing volunteers are also aware that in addition to physical ailments, many patients live alone, and are feeling the toll of loneliness.

According to Wellness Centre Program Manager Carly Berlin, online engagement by volunteers is essential to supporting cancer patients in the midst of a pandemic. “The volunteers are trained to ask questions and measure the responses according to a distress monitor,” Carly explains. “People who wouldn’t come to the Wellness Centre because of the difficult parking situation are not faced with that issue as now they can just reach out virtually. All accessibility can be done this way, which does have benefits,” adding that Hope & Cope may continue some measure of virtual support in the future.

Virtual support is also critical for individuals in the hospital. It brings a human face to the patient, the benefits of which cannot be overstated. “Many patients were feeling down and isolated,” Carly notes, adding how helpful it is when “they are able to join a support group right from their hospital bed.”

Social work intern, Ruthanna Okorosobo, has helped develop our virtual programs, leading the initiative to adapt training documents to accommodate online platforms.Social work intern, Ruthanna Okorosobo, has helped develop our virtual programs, leading the initiative to adapt training documents to accommodate online platforms. “The templates have been built off existing documents,” Ruthanna says. “This change has made it easier to recognize distress and the signs to look out for when patients need help.”  Revamping expediently has been essential because the need for continued, uninterrupted support is more important than ever. Hope & Cope identified the main areas that required immediate online adaptation. Phone calls have remained consistent, but the addition of Zoom meetings has added that human dimension that sustains patients through their cancer journeys.

Ruthanna emphasized that although face-to-face interaction is always preferable, volunteers have received sensitivity training to pick up on nonverbal cues and to consult a distress thermometer, which measures the intonation of voice, and body language. Ruthanna also pointed out that Hope & Cope continues to provide virtual support groups for almost everyone, from those newly diagnosed to those living with various stages of cancer to bereavement support for caregivers.

The pandemic has reinforced and demonstrated once again the best of humankind. In keeping with its reputation for innovation, Hope & Cope has developed a successful and user-friendly approach to provide support during and after the pandemic.