Drivers help cancer patients on road to recovery

MARYSVILLE — Cancer treatments are a grueling experience. Radiation treatments can occur five days a week for six weeks. Chemotherapy treatments are often required once a week for six to eight weeks.

The appointments can be at cancer centers from points as distant as Skagit County to downtown Seattle. The commute, appointment and drive home can easily last four hours.

Volunteers for the American Cancer Society provided more than 1,000 rides to patients in Snohomish County last year.

Cyril Faulkner, 69, of Marysville, was one of those volunteer drivers. His trips to pick up, deliver and take patients home can easily add up to 1,000 miles a month.

He takes his cues from patients about how much they want to talk about their type of cancer or their treatments.

“If you’re driving someone for the first time, let them start the conversation,” he said.

“If you’ve never had cancer, don’t say you know how they feel. Nobody knows how they feel.”

Faulkner was diagnosed with stage 3 colon cancer just days after he married his second wife, Cecilia Faulker, in 2005. Faulkner’s first wife, Irene Faulkner, died of ovarian cancer 21 years ago when she was 46.

“I had chemotherapy and then while I was having radiation, I had a chemo pouch with it. It was pretty serious.”

Faulkner finished his 12 weeks of treatment in the spring of 2006. “I’m 100 percent now,” he said.

He drove one patient who lived in such a small town in Alaska that it only had one stop light. “She asked for a volunteer driver,” he said. “She was too frightened to drive.”

Another patient, who lived in Sultan, needed to come to Everett for treatments four days a week for six weeks. The round trip miles for each of those visits was 107 miles a day.

“This is a person who completely puts his heart into his job,” said Gerald Vasquez, director of radiation oncology at Providence Regional Cancer Partnership in Everett.

“Transportation is always an issue for us,” he said. “It saves our patients a lot of work and time. We can’t appreciate it enough. Patients love him.”

Jerri Wood, quality of life manager for the North Puget Sound unit of the American Cancer Society, said she hopes to recruit about 20 more volunteer drivers.

Volunteers are free to choose how often, what days and even the length of drives they’d like to take, she said.

“The thing is, you don’t have a certain schedule. You’re the one in control of how much time you give.”

That means people can volunteer for one ride a week or even one ride a month. “You can do it a couple months and take a month off,” Wood said. “It’s very flexible around what you’re doing.”

The organization provides about 40 rides a week for patients. About 90 percent of the trips are to take patients to radiation or chemotherapy.

But sometimes they’re taken to a follow-up appointment at an oncologist’s office. When a patient has a port removed, the spot where chemotherapy is administered into the body, cancer centers say they can’t be taken home by taxi. “They have to have a person drive them home,” she said.

Anyone interested in becoming a volunteer driver must undergo background and driving checks and show proof of insurance.

About three-quarters of the volunteers are men. “It’s a great way for men to give back to their community,” Wood said.

Faulkner said it makes him happy to be able to provide the transportation service to patients.

“I always tell them I just love doing it,” Faulkner said. “They’re doing as much for me as I’m doing for them.”

Sharon Salyer: 425-339-3486; salyer@heraldnet.com.

How to help

The American Cancer Society needs volunteers to drive cancer patients to their medical appointments. Volunteers can choose the days and times they’re willing to drive.

To volunteer, contact Jerri Wood, quality of life manager for the American Cancer Society at 425-404-2199 or email Jerri.Wood@cancer.org.

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