Volunteering to Fight Cancer: A Personal Cause

By Emily Strempler

When Janice Handford was approached by co-chair Barb Spurway to join the Techapalooza planning committee in 2011, she saw it simply as an opportunity to get involved with a worthwhile charity and a good cause. As a single mother working a demanding job, as a program and project manager, Handford hadn’t always had time to dedicate to volunteering. When the work began on Techapalooza, however, her son had grown up and she found herself with the time and energy to help out.

Joining the team, Handford took on fundraising and logistics for the first Techapalooza event, held in February of 2012, and has been filling the role ever since. Despite the meteoric growth of the event, Handford points to the 2012 production as her biggest challenge. “We were figuring out how to organize the event and wondering if people would come,” she said, “In the end, the event was a huge success. It was crowded and there was a buzz.” Handford’s volunteer work begins at coordinating with the venues and continues through the event planning process. She collects the thirty to forty non-musician volunteers that help make Techapalooza run smoothly each year, and, on the fundraising side, she manages Techapalooza’s “groupie” donation system, and is the liaison with CancerCare for that program.

“At the time, it was just a cause, one that I felt should be supported to find cures for a disease with which too many people suffer,” Handford said, “It was a while later when it became a very personal involvement.”

In August of 2014, unexpected bleeding prompted a doctor’s visit that quickly led to a biopsy. Spring of that same year, Handford had been given a clean bill of health after her first physical in years. When she began looking up her symptoms online, and as the doctor’s visits continued, Handford says she was in denial, but, “The week before the final diagnosis the gynecologist said they had to do a ‘few more tests’. I knew then that it wasn’t going to be good news.”

Handford received a diagnosis of uterine cancer in October of 2014, as she was helping to plan Techapalooza 2015. One of her first calls after being given the news was from a contact at CancerCare. “She was the second person I told,” Handford said, “I still had to tell my son and my family, and friends. I couldn’t even say the words ‘I have cancer’.” 

Despite having relatively low recurrence rates and a high rate of survival, uterine cancer can be aggressive, requiring intensive treatment to prevent it from spreading. Handford’s treatment began with surgery, a complete hysterectomy.  This was followed six weeks later with chemotherapy sessions, three weeks apart. The treatments are cumulative, meaning the effects get worse each time the cycle repeats. Each session made her nauseous, dizzy, weak for days and deeply drained for weeks. Each time she began to feel better, it was time to return for another session. It also had more permanent effects in the form of nerve damage to Handford’s hands and feet, causing the sensation of pins and needles, and sensitivity to hot and cold.

After chemotherapy came radiation treatment. “Many people get through radiation with minimal negative results,” Handford said, “I didn’t. I got weaker and was continually ill. I said to one of the nurses that I suffered from every symptom on the lists that they provided.”

In addition to love and support from friends and family, throughout treatment and recovery Handford benefitted from the services and programs provided by CancerCare Manitoba. A patient advisor referred her to counselling and a support group, both of which she called “critical to moving forward”. Handford also benefitted from other programs, including Look Good, Feel Better, which seeks to help cancer patients coping with hair loss and self-image issues. She also joined exercise programs and worked with a physiotherapist and massage therapist to slowly recover her physical strength.

Eighteen months after finishing treatment, and with a good prognosis for the future, Handford is still learning to readjust to everyday life. “I’m back at work,” she says, “I’m about to start a CCM Moving Forward after Cancer Program at the Reh-Fit Centre. This program provides support and education on exercise, nutrition, medical management and the emotional issues cancer survivors face.”

Despite her own ongoing struggles, she is quick to turn the conversation back to improving outcomes for others, emphasizing progress and possibilities for the future. “People say that putting money into cancer research is a waste of money, as so much has been invested worldwide in the past decades and there is no cure,” Handford said, “It isn’t one disease. It can be environmental, genetic, hormone related. People don’t understand what progress has been made. There are cures. People live now where twenty years ago their death would have been inevitable.”

There is still work to be done providing better treatments, solutions to side effects, and ongoing support for cancer survivors. Handford says she wants to be a bigger part of that process in the future. She hopes to get involved with other charity events, using her skills as a project manager to help with planning and logistics. “I would like to be more active helping cancer patients/survivors and their families understand the process of cancer treatment,” Handford says, though she is still unsure what form that effort will take.

“Cancer, regardless of the type, stage or prognosis, is a devastating diagnosis and recovery from treatment can be hard,” Handford said, “But we have to remember where the fight against Cancer was even five or ten years ago. Treatments have improved and will continue to improve. One day we’ll figure out prevention and cures for all cancers. Organizations like CancerCare will make it happen.”