In 2020, the COVID pandemic forced A Time to Heal to transition from its traditional in-person classes to a virtual model. The reasons for the switch were clear: Covid may have halted in-person gatherings, but it hadn’t stopped cancer. Survivors were more isolated and adrift than ever, struggling to manage their diagnosis and treatment while being cut off from any support groups or activities that had once existed. Virtual survivorship classes may not be everyone’s ideal, but they provided a much-needed lifeline in those lonely times.
As virtual classes continued, however, a massive benefit made itself known: classes started filling with people from small towns, from rural communities, and from places without any other survivorship support. In moving online, our survivorship classes began to fill a need we hadn’t even known existed. I had the pleasure of speaking to one of these far-flung survivors recently, Mrs. Jackie Veats.
Jackie lives in rural Alaska, about 10 miles north of Fairbanks. I was shocked when she said she lived 30 minutes from town, out in the Alaskan woods, but Jackie only laughed. Fairbanks is hardly the most remote place she’s lived. Before moving south to Fairbanks in 2020, she had lived for 16 years in the Brooks Mountain Range, in a tiny town called Coldfoot.
Jackie first visited Alaska for vacation. She and her husband traveled to the Brooks Range to see the Northern Lights and fell in love with the area. With the encouragement of her husband, Jackie went home and took early retirement from her job. She was back in Alaska within two months of that first vacation, working as a seasonal tour guide. For a few years, Jackie worked seasonally in Coldfoot, until her husband retired and together, they moved permanently to Alaska in 2007. According to Jackie, this story isn’t uncommon. “When you talk to people who’ve moved to Alaska, they’ll tell you they either moved here for a job, or they took a trip here and couldn’t stay away. It was like that for me.”
After 16 years in Coldfoot, Jackie retired from her job as a tour guide/postmaster/retail manager when COVID hit in 2020. The pandemic meant that no tourists were traveling up to the mountains, so Jackie and her husband moved down to Fairbanks. And it was right then, at the beginning of her second retirement, that Jackie was diagnosed with colon cancer.
“It was a huge surprise”, Jackie remembers. “I’m so grateful to my GP, who kept pushing me to get a colonoscopy.” Jackie’s cancer was discovered during this routine test and was diagnosed at stage 2. Without it, it could have been another year before the cancer was found and the prognosis would have been much worse. “I’ve become an advocate for colonoscopies now. They can save a life.”
Jackie made major surgery to remove the cancer, followed by a course of chemo, which is almost complete. These days, she only needs to make the 30-minute drive to the hospital twice a month, but for a time, she was making that drive for every test, appointment, meeting and treatment. It was exhausting, but Jackie is grateful that her diagnosis happened after they moved, instead of while they were in Coldfoot, where treatment options were nonexistent. Still, the distance to the hospital made attending any support groups there difficult. So Jackie turned to the internet to find support.
When she was first diagnosed, Jackie had a hard time talking to anyone. “I was in this cold and lonely place,” she remembers. When she started feeling up to it, she found A Time to Heal through an online group. She took both Survivorship 101 and Brain Fog this winter and loved them.
“The Brain Fog class changed my life,” Jackie says, “the take-home tools they give really work and started helping me almost immediately.” Brain Fog was especially frustrating for Jackie, because she had always been a busy multi-tasker and suddenly she wasn’t able to think as quickly or retain information the way she was used to. “I couldn’t sew,” she remembers, “because I would start a project and have to keep looking at the pattern over and over. I couldn’t make any progress.” The techniques in the class helped alleviate some of those problems.
More importantly, the class helped Jackie to laugh at her brain fog, instead of feeling stressed about it.
“It was so empowering to meet all these people who were experiencing the same thing and to be able to share my problems. There were things I couldn’t talk to my friends and family about, things that only people who have had cancer understand.”
That connection is exactly why A Time to Heal is here and why our virtual program is so important. Survivors like Jackie, who live in rural areas, far away from hospitals or treatment centers, need support groups to help them thrive after cancer and create their best lives. It was a pleasure to speak with Jackie and we are honored to have been a part of her story and to share it with you.
If you or someone you love could benefit from Survivorship or Brain Fog class, we can help. Check out our upcoming schedule of classes here: https://atimetohealfoundation.org/survivorship-101-no-borders/.