Melissa Osmond and her fiancé Justin Freake were taking Fort McMurray by storm in 2015.
The young couple, both originally from Newfoundland, had migrated to the northern Alberta city – known as a mecca of financial opportunity for those eager to make a life and career in the remote but frequently booming oil town – to seek out a new prosperous journey into adulthood.
When the two met, just over three years ago, love blossomed. Osmond and Freake were engaged to be wed right after her 25th birthday. That summer, they purchased and began setting up their first home together while simultaneously raising a happy little family – “Duke, the dog; Lily, the cat; and Thumper, a rabbit.” says Osmond, adding that life in ‘Fort Mac’ up until a year ago was pretty “carefree.”
“No kids, just fur children. We were planning our wedding, planning for our future. We both had full-time jobs in the oilfields. Life in Fort McMurray after my cancer diagnosis changed. A lot.”
The news – given by doctors at the Northern Lights Regional Health Centre on November 6, 2015 – that Osmond had acute myeloid leukemia came as “a complete shock to everyone, including myself,” she adds.
Osmond and her fiancé had just returned from Newfoundland where they were visiting for her sister’s wedding. A few weeks after their plane touched back down in Fort McMurray, Osmond started feeling ill. What was at first diagnosed as a pesky bacterial infection in her throat soon evolved into bruising across her legs and stomach.
“It happened so fast. I was sent for blood work. Later that evening I had multiple missed calls and voicemails from the doctor’s office,” she says.
Finally, that evening she managed to connect with her GP over the phone. “They said that I needed to go straight to the hospital, right away. I was told ‘Don’t detour.’ All I could think of was ‘Gosh, maybe my iron is low?’ ” she says. “When we arrived … the doctor came in and said to me: ‘We believe you have leukemia, and we will be medevacking you to Edmonton as soon as the flight medics arrive.’ ”
And then, Osmond’s world fell out from beneath her feet. “After the first week, I was able to get past the ‘Why me, out of all of the people in the world, why did this have to happen to me?’ Soon, I realized I still have a whole life ahead of me, and I need to beat this cancer,” she says.
Osmond would spend the next month and a half in hospital in Edmonton.
“My strongest rock since day one was my fiancé. Justin’s employers were beyond amazing through all of my treatments; they were very accommodating as he stayed by my side.”
What would come down the pipe over the next year would include chemotherapy and eventually a stem cell transplant. The couple would need to relocate to Calgary for February through spring 2016. What they didn’t know then was that a massive wildfire would burn through their city in May, causing a mass evacuation and preventing them from returning home for several more months.
“Finances were already rough and stressful. I needed a 24/7 caregiver. We had our mortgage, vehicle, utilities, insurance payments …” Osmond says.
Osmond was referred to the Alberta Cancer Foundation’s Patient Financial Assistance Program, which assessed her need and quickly managed to find avenues of financial support. The PFAP helped the couple stay in an apartment for the months of treatment she would require during and after her stem cell transplant. That support was extended when the northern Alberta wildfires hit.
“We can’t thank them enough. It reduces a significant burden so that you can use your strength to focus on recovering instead of stressing about money,” Osmond says.
For patients who are in the midst of fighting not only the most emotional, physical, spiritual and psychological fight of their lives, the realization that their cancer diagnosis will also be one of the most financially challenging experiences of their existence can be a harrowing blow.
The PFAP addresses one of the most common – and often ignored – aspects of a cancer diagnosis: finances. The program provides assistance to patients who need it most, for a variety of requirements.
Although the chemotherapy that patients receive is most often covered by the government, medications that help patients with the side-effects of their treatment must be purchased, explains Melissa Wilde, a social worker with the Jack Ady Cancer Centre in Lethbridge.
“If a patient does not have adequate drug coverage, these costs can be quite burdensome,” Wilde adds. “Many patients must travel from their home community for treatment. They may find that cost quite challenging because they could have multiple trips throughout the year, or they may have to stay in a location for several weeks or months for surgery, radiation or a stem cell transplant. Mileage, parking, meals, accommodations, the list goes on … must all be paid for out of pocket. It can all add up quite quickly,” Wilde says.
In addition to these costs, patients may need to stop working in order to receive their treatment and heal, and they may have limited or no access to private insurance, employment insurance or disability programs.
Linda Beck shares in Osmond’s gratitude to the PFAP. When the then 59-year-old mother and grandmother from Lloydminster was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia with a 50 per cent chance of survival in 2012, it was the last thing she expected to hear.
After several rounds of chemotherapy treatment in Edmonton, Beck was hoping cancer would finally be gone from her body. But there was more bad news. She would need a bone marrow transplant, which could only happen in Calgary. It was time to relocate for the next eight months to southern Alberta.
“I had the support of my son and his family. My granddaughter eventually became my caregiver. But I don’t know what I would have done financially without the Alberta Cancer Foundation Patient Financial Assistance Program,” Beck says, adding that the organization made it possible for her to rent a condo across from the cancer centre during her transplant, which included daily trips back and forth for blood transfusions.
“They also provide incredible service in the terms of emotional support. If there were issues with costs for my utilities and or groceries, my social worker put me in contact with other programs or arranged for financial help. They were a conduit to life. They allowed me to maintain my dignity and access help so that I could return to my new life in Lloydminster and continue being a productive member of society after cancer.”
Beck says she’s living a happy post-treatment life, enjoying her grandchildren and her two dogs while looking forward to her granddaughter’s wedding this fall. “I’m loving life again, and I can’t say enough about the help I received from the Alberta Cancer Foundation,” she says.
Lynn Van Hyfte, vice president of fund development with the Alberta Cancer Foundation, says the current economic downturn in Alberta has created massive extra need. “We have definitely seen the impact of the recession on fundraising yet at the same time, we expect the number of people needing help will double by the end of the year,” Van Hyfte says. “And, we don’t want to ever have to turn anyone away.”
Van Hyfte says the program is designed to help those in active treatment and symptom management. “By the time a social worker confirms a patient is eligible for the program, all other funding, possibly government or medical, comes through.”
In 2015, the Alberta Cancer Foundation provided more than $950,000 in support patients and families. “This year, we are aiming for $2 million. Sadly, cancer doesn’t take a break just because our economy does.” Van Hyfte says.
Osmond was eagerly hoping to return home when the fires raged through her northern Alberta community. “The wildfire was a huge slap in our face,” she says. “Thankfully the Alberta Cancer Foundation was able to let us stay in the Calgary apartment for another month until Fort McMurray could let residents back in.”
Today, Osmond is back at home doing well. The couple was forced to cancel their wedding due to the diagnosis and financial strain, and Osmond continues to travel back and forth to Edmonton every few weeks for doctor’s appointments.
“Eventually, those appointments will be spread out more and more. What’s next for us is just living our lives to the fullest and getting used our new ‘normal’ life. We look forward to hopefully having our wedding in the future,” she says. “The Alberta Cancer Foundation helped us so much and eased so much stress off of us financially.”