Volunteers drive away one worry for cancer patients

Larry Coleman’s hulking 2003 Chevy Silverado pick-up truck may not be the kind of vehicle most of his passengers expect when he picks them up. But the 300,000 kilometres on his odometer show he’s a popular choice.

Coleman is one of about 175 volunteer drivers who ensure cancer patients from east of Burnaby and New Westminster to about Mission and Abbotsford, plus North Vancouver and West Vancouver, can get to appointments at cancer clinics in Surrey and Vancouver. He’s been doing it five days a week for about five years, and he said the big four-wheel drive vehicle comes in handy when the weather turns nasty.

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Coleman, who’s also a director for the Volunteer Cancer Drivers Society, said while the back-and-forth miles in heavy traffic can be gruelling, the work is rewarding.

“You appreciate the strength the patients have,” he said of the passengers he delivers daily for chemotherapy or radiation treatments.

Coleman said the service is busy and getting busier every year. From its 16 drivers who started the society in 2016, after the Canadian Cancer Society ended its own driving service, the fleet is expected to make more than 8,500 round trips this year, covering more than half a million kilometres.

The drivers receive 44 cents a km to cover their expenses, but many sink that stipend right back into the society. Other funds come from community organizations like the Port Moody Rotary Club, the unions for firefighters in Port Moody and Surrey as well as government grants and donations from the public.

But meeting the $18,000 a month to keep the service going, as well as growing the roster of available drivers, is like grinding up a steep hill in first gear, Coleman said — never ending.

Coleman, a retired supervisor for a general contracting company, said while driving cancer patients around to difficult treatments might seem dour and gloomy, it’s usually quite the opposite. Often his passengers just want a friendly ear for a conversation about anything but cancer. Sometimes they confide their fears they can’t share with close family. Mostly, there’s laughter.

“It’s a pretty fun ride,” he said, recalling one particular adventure that turned into a spirited game of Name That Tune to the oldies station playing on his pick-up’s radio.

Over the years, Coleman has forged strong connections with several passengers, staying in touch to check up on them even after their treatments are done. And, of course, he’s also lost a few along the way. 

When that happens, Coleman takes comfort that the service he and his fellow drivers provide at least managed to remove one worry or burden from the day-to-day concerns that come with a cancer diagnosis.

“It’s huge not having to worry about whether they can make it to their appointment,” Coleman said. “It’s important to have those moments.”

• To become a volunteer driver or to help support the Volunteer Cancer Drivers Society, go to www.volunteercancerdrivers.ca.

mbartel@tricitynews.com

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