Regional Cancer Survivors’ Retreat

The Cause

The NWT Breast Health/Breast Cancer Action Group (Action Group) wants to strengthen the connections and mutual support among NWT women experiencing any type of cancer, empower women to support others dealing with the same disease in their community, and reduce the isolation of women facing cancer especially in smaller communities in the NWT. To do this we propose to hold a two and half day Regional Cancer Survivors’ Retreat for up to 20 women dealing with any type of cancer in May 2019. The Retreat will take place in Yellowknife and include survivors from the North and South Slave and Deh Cho regions.

The Survivors’ Retreat provides psycho-social support and opportunities for sharing personal experiences with other survivors. The Retreat creates a safe environment where participants are able to reflect on, explore and articulate their cancer journey through guided discussions and creative expression using an art medium. In the long term, participants experience more balanced/healthy lifestyle, reduced feelings of isolation, and are able to address cancer related psycho-social issues and gain hope for the future.

In the NWT geographic distance and cultural and language barriers add to the overwhelming emotional and physical challenges experienced by cancer patients. Particularly for women from more remote communities, it may not be possible for them to share thoughts and feelings with others who are going through or have already gone through the cancer experience. There are also persistent myths and fears about cancer in communities that can make it difficult for a cancer survivor to speak with others about what she is experiencing.

Currently in the NWT there is no psycho-social support program available to help cancer survivors address the personal and family emotional impacts of cancer although such programs exist elsewhere. The cancer peer support training that we held in 2017 in collaboration with the Canadian Cancer Society, with financial support from the Field Law Community Fund, has helped develop cancer peer support groups in some communities. Empowering cancer survivors through the proposed Retreat will help the peer support movement grow.

Cancer survivors who have benefited from a Survivors’ Retreat often want to return that gift and pay it forward by providing support to others diagnosed with cancer. The proposed Retreat will give cancer survivors information and skills to share with others going through cancer.

Who Will it Benefit?

Women experiencing any type of cancer will benefit from the emotional support, information, skills and knowledge gained at the Retreat. In the longer term they will benefit from the connections made with other cancer survivors that will help reduce isolation and be an informal network of support. The retreat participants will also have more tools to support themselves on their cancer journey. They will be able to pay it forward by sharing what they have gained at the Retreat with other women dealing with cancer in their community. So other women dealing with cancer will also benefit from emotional support, reduced stress/isolation, and new ways of coping with cancer.

Based on available statistics an average of 68 NWT women were diagnosed with cancer each year from 2011 to 2015. The proposed Regional Retreat budget will cover travel costs for at least 10 women from communities in the North and South Slave and Deh Cho regions of the NWT to attend. There will also be spaces for eight women from Yellowknife, Ndilo and Dettah to attend. We look forward to a total of 18 - 20 participants in the Retreat. We anticipate that most will have recently completed treatment although the Retreat is open to women at any stage in their cancer journey.

The Action Group has held territorial retreats for breast cancer survivors in the past but not since 2012 when federal funding for this activity ended. The proposed Regional Retreat will be the first time women experiencing other types of cancer will come together from different NWT communities at a survivors' retreat.

Independent evaluations found that the past retreats provided valuable opportunities for cancer survivors to come together in a safe environment, share experiences and speak candidly about their cancer journeys. The sessions helped facilitate personal healing for participants and helped them develop support networks. Participants highlighted feeling more connected with other cancer survivors and said it helped them deal with the emotional impact of their cancer: “It’s like I got my life back again.”

We have added therapeutic yoga and healthy nutrition for cancer recovery sessions to the Regional Retreat, based on the positive feedback of survivors in Yellowknife who have benefited from these activities held locally.

The Regional Retreat is for female survivors only as there can be cancer-related issues that women are not comfortable discussing in a mixed group.