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Qualicum Beach woman thankful for outpouring of community support after rare cancer diagnosis

Experience highlights importance of friends and family for recovery, need for equity in access
Qualicum Beach resident Joanne Falvai is thankful for the overwhelming community support she received while undergoing therapy for brain cancer. (Submitted photo)

A Qualicum Beach woman is thankful for the “extraordinary” community support she and her family received while she was treated for a rare form of brain cancer.

Joanne Falvai, a mother of three boys and a VIU professor of criminology, was diagnosed with medulloblastoma in November 2020 after experiencing severe headaches and neck pain.

She underwent brain surgery, followed by six weeks of radiation and five months of chemotherapy at the BC Cancer Clinic in Victoria. Falvai knew the cost of staying in Victoria for months at a time would be prohibitively expensive, but also knew commuting back and forth from Qualicum Beach was not a viable option.

“I was recovering from brain surgery and so that meant being in the car was almost unbearable,” Falvai said.

Relocating temporarily to Victoria also meant Falvai’s husband, Mark, would need to take a lot of time off work, putting further financial pressure on the already stressful situation.

She and Mark were reluctant to start a GoFundMe page, being private people and not wanting people to feel obligated to help.

“Our friends were really encouraging us to let them put this GoFundMe up and so we did,” she said.

The family was amazed to see donations come in not just from friends and family, but from total strangers and even local businesses. The campaign raised more than $64,000.

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Support came in many forms, ranging from dropping off home-cooked meals and gift cards, to helping out with the yard, to dropping off cords of firewood for the family’s woodstove.

“It lets you focus on the things you need to be focusing on,” Falvai said. “And not worrying about the firewood and heating the house. It’s taken care of.”

She is thankful for the treatment she received at the cancer centre, including help for ailments she never would have anticipated.“Whatever you needed, they had,” Falvai said. She described how during the course of the treatments, her voice became very quiet and her jaw was affected either by the cancer or as a side effect.

“I was having a lot of trouble formulating words and it was like, ‘oh, we’ll book you with a speech therapist’,” she said. “The term I like to use is ‘wraparound care.’ Full wraparound.”

Falvai said she feels privileged to have received this level of community support and medical care and realizes many people do not have the same experience.

“Not everyone will have that. Not everyone will have the ability to travel back and forth or to move themselves down there and secure accommodations in Victoria,” she said. “It’s absolutely essential that there’s more access here because, in addition to that stuff, just having your community around you is essential.”

Falvai hopes some day soon greater access to cancer treatment will let people stay at home in the mid-Island while being treated for cancer.

“Being around your people is so important,” she said. “You’ve got to keep that positive attitude, you’ve gotta keep the good vibes and the love connection strong because cancer treatment will wipe you out. It takes so much.”

Her treatment was a success and, although she still has scans every four months, Falvai is happy to report that she remains cancer-free. With her energy bouncing back, she hopes to return to work at VIU gradually.

One of the many things she learned through the experience is that no one is guaranteed a long life.

“When you’re diagnosed with a serous illness that might end your life sooner than you planned, you can feel cheated,” she said. “You can feel like it’s not fair, maybe you won’t see your children grow up or you won’t hold your grandchild or be at someone’s wedding. But that’s true for all of us.”

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