Driven to help: Volunteers get behind wheel to ease journey for cancer patients

More than 100 members serve the Fraser Valley

  • Aug. 11, 2017 10:15 a.m.

by Lauren Boothby, Contributor

When Marilyn Phillips gets behind the wheel of her car, she knows she is helping save a life.

At 77 years old and retired, she drives her car to a stranger’s home two to four times a week, ferrying them to and from appointments free of charge.

Phillips is one of over 100 members of the Volunteer Cancer Drivers Society who drive cancer patients to and from medical appointments and treatments every week, trips that can sometimes take a whole day. That’s why she brings mystery novels to read while she waits.

But for her, driving these people is a meaningful way to spend her time.

“We got a win-win situation,” she says. “I find it a very rewarding experience.”

Phillips lives in Mission, but her trips take her across the Lower Mainland and into friendly conversation with her passengers.

“You have to help them feel comfortable,” she says, and she doesn’t mind.

“I drove one lady for about three years and then she finally passed away,” Phillips says. “She was very upbeat, a very strong personality. She always wanted to talk.”

Like many of these drivers, Phillips has had family members with cancer. Her grandmother died of cancer when she was young, and her brother died of leukemia at 53. That’s why she was inspired to volunteer: to help the patients and take a burden off their families.

“There’s only so much their relatives and friends can do,” she says. “They’re always very grateful, and that’s what we get out of it.

“We feel honoured to actually be able to take them.”

Langley’s Bob Seymour, 78, is one of these people who Phillips and other volunteers have helped.

For the last several months, Seymour has been going to Vancouver General Hospital almost every weekday to the hyperbaric chamber to repair damage associated with complications from his cancer treatments.

Each of these 51 treatments, which requires travelling from his home in Langley to Vancouver, takes most of the day. He leaves at 11 a.m. and does not return until after 5 p.m.

“When you go take the treatments, you come out and you can be tired from them,” he says. “People that volunteer to do this are providing a tremendous, tremendous service. I’m not sure they realize the importance of what they do.”

Without the drivers, Seymour says it would be challenging to get his treatment as his wife has difficulties with arthritis and would not be able to take him.

“When you’re on the receiving end of it, you understand how important it is, how vital it is,” he says.

Seymour says the interactions with the drivers are enjoyable, and with regular trips they get to know each other quite well.

“If you can imagine spending that much time on a weekly basis with a driver, you get to become very good friends. You have a lot of sharing together,” he says.

“[My wife and I] were shopping the other day and one of the drivers came up and grabbed me on the shoulder and stood and talked for a while. I keep in touch with some of them; it’s an ongoing friendship.”

As for Phillips, Seymour says she seems to find the experience as meaningful and pleasant as he does.

“[She’s a] really, really lovely person; really interesting person. Just so friendly and outgoing and bubbly. Just a real treat to be with,” he says.

The Volunteer Cancer Drivers Society started in January 2016 after the Canadian Cancer Society discontinued free transportation for patients in October 2015. The organization has grown from 20 to over 100 drivers today. They are currently seeking volunteers from Mission, Langley and Abbotsford.

About the society:

George Garrett, a driving force behind the Volunteer Cancer Drivers Society, said the program was started by John MacInnes, a cancer survivor.

Last month, MacInnes died suddenly, from cancer at age 83.

“John used to always say, ‘I want this service to last for 25 years.’ They’re committed to that and trying to keep it going,” said Garrett.

“He was really one of the driving forces behind it, and he began driving for us,” he laughed. “And when his wife became ill he had to stop doing that.”

That’s when MacInnes asked Garrett to come on board.

Garrett explained how the system works.

Dispatchers work from home, and volunteers drive one to three times a week. Patients call the number, leave information with their address and time of appointment, and they get a call back within 24 hours with info on the driver.

Drivers are reimbursed 41 cents per kilometre.

“Some donate a portion back to us, which is remarkable,” said Garrett.

Drivers are always needed, particularly from Mission and Abbotsford, and Garrett asks anyone interested to visit the website for information on how to apply: volunteercancerdrivers.ca or phone 604-514-5400.

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