When Sarah White moved back to Prince George months after her stem cell transplant in Vancouver, she was home but suddenly missing the support of friends all-too-familiar with cancer.
"Once you have a cancer diagnosis, you have a new normal," said the 31-year-old who was first diagnosed with leukemia at 28. More than a year later, it was back. "It really helps to have other people that get that as well."
That type of support was missing in Prince George so White made a group to fill that gap.
After putting out feeler messages on the Facebook group Hell Yeah PG in October, White held the city's first cancer support group last Wednesday. White, who has a background in social work, leads the group with a social work student from UNBC who acts as co-facilitator.
"Until you've lived actually having cancer and facing your mortality that closely and all the other things that sort of come with it, you don't know," said White, who is cancer-free but has graft vs. host disease - a common side effect to the stem cell transplant she got in January last year.
"Even if you're surrounded by all your family and friends in the world, you can still feel very isolated."
The first session brought out seven people and White said
she's been overwhelmed by the interest and messages from the community.
It's been a months-long effort to build a local network not so long after her personal journey with leukemia started with a jolt.
"It was quick. Bam, bam bam," she recalled of her diagnosis in early 2012. "It's an aggressive form of leukemia so basically I started treatment the next day."
After months of chemotherapy, she was in remission. She moved from Vancouver back home to Prince George and got a job with Northern Health.
Then in August 2013, she started feeling tired. It was a familiar feeling.
She was tested and put in isolation and then air-evacuated to Vancouver.
"I had no white blood cells."
The Acute Myeloid Leukemia was back and this time she needed a stem cell transplant.
White's sister, pregnant with her first child, was a perfect match. Months away from delivery, doctors started looking for other donors.
"They were worried I wouldn't survive."
According to the Canadian Blood Services, only 25 per cent donors are found within the family and men are preferable donors, representing three out of four stem cell donors.
In the end, they couldn't find a preferable match and her sister offered to induce her pregnancy a couple weeks early. More than 1,000 Canadians are waiting for a stem cell match at a given time, according to Canadian Blood Services.
Even without the cancer, she's on heavy medication.
"People think you go, you have your cancer treatment and you're fine and everything's back to normal."
Living now with graft vs. host disease can make daily life difficult.
"It manifests itself differently for everybody," she said. "My teeth have no enamel so I'm really sensitive to hot and cold. My mouth is often full of sores so I can't eat spicy food."
Her mouth doesn't produce saliva and her eyes don't make moisture. They are getting worse, and this coming week she's visiting an eye surgeon as the condition worsens.
"It's very painful and very uncomfortable."
White, however, is quite comfortable talking about her diagnosis and experience.
"I think sometimes as cancer survivors we feel some guilt and almost like we don't want to burden other people talking about our cancer all the time. I also think that people feel like they shouldn't ask," said White. "When it's the cancer support group that's what we're talking about and that's what we're doing so there's none of that."
Her plan is to have meetings every second Wednesday evening, but because a UNBC practicum students help co-facilitate the meetings and they partner with UNBC's Community Care Centre for the space, White will have to wait on planning the next session.
Those interested in joining the group, you can find it on Facebook under PG Community Cancer Group - Peers Supporting Peers Through Our Journeys or email White at firstname.lastname@example.org.