For breast cancer survivor Rhonda Vinje Anderson, attending the Indigenous Cancer Patient Sharing Circle in Calgary has been a life raft towards recovery.
“The sharing circle gives a chance to voice what I was going through, in a safe environment and knowing I’m being listened to,” said Vinje Anderson. “It’s not always easy. There is still a thread of protectiveness when you talk about falling through the cracks.”
After her diagnosis in 2019, Vinje Anderson says she encountered a health care environment that was unable to give more than brief attention to her requests for help or information. Of mixed ancestry, including Cree roots from Onion Lake, Vinje Anderson says her journey toward healing has been tumultuous.
“I felt not listened to. I went to chemo every three weeks for six months; you’re in and out of there like a revolving door,” she recalled. “I feel like I’ve failed to heal.”
In Toronto, breast cancer survivor Leila Springer realized there was poor or non-existent data on breast health for black women, and no support groups where she felt included.
“This was very disheartening, especially when we so desperately needed some kind of support system to help us overcome the fears and challenges we were facing,” Springer said.
Originally from Barbados, Springer co-founded The Olive Branch of Hope to educate women of colour and help improve their health care journey.
“After treatment, I experienced a period of depression. I looked around and all material reflected white women so I was not sure where I could find help,” she said. “The Olive Branch of Hope was born to fill a void in the health care system.”
The non-profit is currently partnered with the Princess Margaret Cancer Foundation to better understand the impact of race on breast cancer care. The Lived Experiences of Black Women with Breast Cancer project involves interviews with Canadian Black women affected by breast cancer and will conclude with Canada-wide strategies for improved cancer care. The project team has already heard common themes from participants, from the feeling of not being heard to lack of representation for women of colour.
This initiative and the Indigenous sharing circle are part of a growing response by organizations to repair deficiencies in the medical sector and bridge communication and cultural differences.
An RN and member of the Piikani Nation, Arrow Big Smoke is one of three Indigenous Cancer Patient Navigators in the province. The others are in Edmonton and Grande Prairie.
Feeling accommodated in a culturally receptive space is integral to a healing path through breast cancer, Big Smoke stresses.
“Cancer can be scary and overwhelming, there are a lot of different reactions to it. I help get Indigenous clients connected to resources that will help them,” she explained. “A lot of clients were telling me they were very lonely. They didn’t want to burden their families talking about it, and didn’t have anyone to talk to who understood them."
In 2020 Big Smoke helped launch the Indigenous Cancer Sharing Circle in partnership with Wellspring Alberta – a provincial non-profit that offers resources and programming to anyone living with cancer. Monthly gatherings always include an elder who provides a spiritual dimension and connection to Indigenous culture and wisdom.
For Vinje Anderson, who spent most of her childhood not knowing her Cree heritage, having an elder present in the regular sharing sessions makes all the difference.
“I cannot express enough the patience, the encouragement, the genuine appreciation they have for us as cancer survivors,” she said. “The wisdom that comes from them is absolutely wonderful, but also the willingness to learn from us to help anyone they meet along the way.”
Prior to cancer, Vinje Anderson co-led a program that helped single women find transitional housing, and she says her life experiences have clarified her strengths.
“There are those who don’t have the social services background that I have, who are going through the same cancer journey. I feel I can advocate on their behalf,” said Vinje Anderson. “Four years later and I am still working on this healing journey.”
To connect with an Indigenous Cancer Patient Navigator, visit albertahealthservices.ca/indigenous-navigator
Find out more about Wellspring’s Indigenous Cancer Sharing Circle at wellspringalberta.ca/indigenous-cancer-sharing-circle.
Visit The Olive Branch of Hope at www.theolivebranch.ca