Houston Chronicle Article- “Houston cancer support program goes remote to continue through coronavirus era”

April 13, 2020

For cancer patients, staying safe during the coronavirus epidemic requires complete isolation – and that can make them feel more alone than ever.Houston nonprofit CanCare has launched a new support line so volunteers can still reach out to patients over the phone.

President and CEO Cristina Vetrano explained that before COVID-19, CanCare volunteers were stationed in hospital waiting rooms. 
“Those volunteers would sit in a radiation waiting room, just to talk to people,” she said. “We wanted to be there. The more folks we can help, the better, and people can be reluctant to ask for help – or they just don’t know about us.”

CanCare has been around for 30 years. The nonprofit trains cancer survivors as volunteers, to share their stories and become compassionate listeners.

The organization matches patients and caregivers for free one-on-one support with a volunteer – and provides a crew ready to offer support in the hospitals.   
“But, now our volunteers can’t go to the hospital,” Vetrano said.Fortunately, Vetrano, who worked for years as a director and project manager at the Red Crosss ,had been working on a plan for some time, in case a major disaster occurred.“I wanted to be prepared,” she said. “The work we do, I didn’t want it to stop, because there was a flood.”

When coronavirus sent her CanCare team home, they continued working remotely.“People going through cancer treatment are already isolated,” Vetrano said. “They have to be so careful. They have to self-isolate. These volunteers have been through that. They want people to stay home.”

Volunteers launched the new “CanCare Support Phone Line and Email System” in late March. Those in need of care are encouraged to call 713-364-1652 from 8 a.m. until 6 p.m. Monday through Friday, or email support@cancare.org. The service is scheduled to be available until April 30.“We figured out how to do it; we tested it,” Vetrano said. “Now we want people to take advantage of the number, to talk to folks and get the support they need.”

Anyone is welcome to use the service, she added. “It’s for any cancer type, any age,” she said. “It can also be a caregiver.”

She estimates that the volunteer force represents 75 different cancer types. “We don’t provide medical advice, but they can absolutely talk about how they felt,” she said.Volunteers can also tell them what worked for them.

“In August 2016, my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer,” volunteer Lloyd Rachal said. “It was stage 2, metastatic. At the time our two boys were in fifth grade and third grade. It was a life-changer.”

Rachal did not know what to say to support his wife, Jennifer. “As the husband, I had no idea how to make it all right, what to say, what to do,” he said. “I could say something, but I had no idea what it was like. My words were going nowhere.”

Then, the couple met CanCare volunteer Ruth Davies in the waiting room. “She had survived breast cancer not once, but twice,” said Rachal, who lives in Cypress. “As soon as she started talking to Jennifer, there was an immediate change.”

A few months later they connected with a CanCare volunteer who also lived in Cypress who could talk about how she raised her children while undergoing treatment.

“CanCare was there when we needed them,” Rachal said. “Now, we want to be there for them. Jennifer and I are both trained volunteers. Jennifer has been able to support other women.”Rachal has also helped husbands through their wives’ treatments. He said that CanCare’s tagline “a survivor by your side” is a perfect description of the service.

“It’s support from people who know what you’re going through, a family on your type of journey, and everybody’s journey or story is different,” Rachal said. “Having a conversation or text with someone who been through something similar – but who is now on the other side, that perspective is completely different.”

Tapping into that unique insight is exactly what CanCare is all about, Vetrano said.*Update- support phone line and email will be active for the foreseeable future.