For many women, being diagnosed with breast cancer is like waking into a nightmare; the fear of what is to come can be a source of depression, anxiety, and guilt. But for Shirley, a breast cancer survivor who embodies that prairie optimism and strength that defines Alberta women, it was just another chance to grow stronger.
“I have a very deep faith and to be able to share it with my friends and family, I just knew that no matter how long I had to live it would all be okay,” says the retired mother and grandmother with a light in her voice.
But even for a fighter like Shirley, the surgeries and radiation therapy eventually took their toll. Commuting from Wetaskiwin to receive treatments at Edmonton’s Cross Cancer Institute became an exhausting journey for Shirley and her loving husband. When a room opened up at Compassion House, they toured the house and let their worries fade away as they realized what a warm and welcoming environment awaited her.
“My husband felt really good about me being there. He saw that it was safe and he didn’t have to worry. And then I didn’t have to worry about him. I could just listen to my body and give it what it needed, whether that be rest or companionship or whatever.”
The sense of relief she felt upon walking through the front doors that first day was like finding an oasis.
“The house is set up to make you feel comfortable, even pampered. The kitchen is beautiful and there is plenty of privacy, if that’s what you need. The staff has been through this before and so they understand exactly what you need. It truly is a home away from home.”
The friendships she made over that week in the house have only grown stronger through the years. The sense of sisterhood -- of being able to cry together, laugh together, cook together – is something that has not faded with the passing of time.
“I didn’t have any friends who had been through breast cancer,” Shirley confides, “The women in the house, they were my family. You didn’t have to talk; you just knew. One night I came down to the kitchen and one woman was just so sad and she just hugged me and didn’t let go and we knew everything was going to be fine.”
Shirley describes leaving the house at the end of her treatment with mixed emotions.
“On the one hand, it’s a celebration because the exhaustion of treatment is coming to an end, but you almost don’t want to leave because it’s like there’s this warm, fuzzy blanket over the house.”
Being able to give shelter and comfort to women like Shirley while they focus their strength on fighting their cancer is part of what makes Compassion House such a special place. Being able to hear the love and optimism in her voice, years after her brief stay in the house, is what makes all the hard work worthwhile.