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Defining life after cancer

January 7, 2013
By: 
Amy Dove
Tags: alumni
Terri Wingham found herself in Africa, thousands of miles away from the story of her illness. She is now campaigning to help other cancer survivors travel and volunteer abroad.

Terri Wingham’s new chapter started at an end.

The Bachelor of Commerce alumna is working around the clock to bring 12 cancer survivors to India next month through her organization, A Fresh Chapter. Once there, they will volunteer with various groups and spend time with CanSupport, a Dehli-based organization that helps cancer patients. They are going to define what life after cancer looks like for them, a challenging personal journey Wingham is very familiar with.

Diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 30, her ending could have been very different, and for a time it was. Having faced a life-threatening illness, four rounds of chemotherapy and three surgeries, including a double mastectomy, Wingham was depressed, lonely and uninspired.

“I ended up going through a huge identity crisis,” says the Vancouver, B.C. resident. “Cancer aside, the hell of surgeries and chemo, I would have expected that to be hard, but I didn’t expect the identify crisis that came with being a patient.”

That changed though, when she decided to undertake a “big hairy, audacious dream,” as she calls it. She made the decision on New Year’s Day 2011 and hasn’t looked back.

“I thought I better do something really big. Out of nowhere I thought I should go and volunteer in Africa. It was the first thing since I had been diagnosed 15 months before that I felt excited about,” she says.

That trip changed everything. She spent her time helping children in a daycare and her story started to change. She wasn’t the person who had cancer anymore.

“I was 1,000 of miles away from where I was sick. I met all these people who didn’t have an expectation of who I was,” she says. “I was taking care of people rather than being taken care of. I realized how lucky I was because I had been treated in Canada and I had this opportunity to write a new chapter in my life.”

Upon her return to Canada, Wingham set her focus on finding a way to help other cancer survivors share in that experience. A Fresh Chapter was born.

Royal Roads taught her that every good idea needs to be grounded in a solid plan. Before she could encourage others to volunteer abroad, she needed to gain more personal experience. Over the course of six months in 2012 she volunteered on almost every continent. She also travelled around North America making connections with cancer support agencies. With those experiences to draw from, Wingham started pulling together the idea of #Dehli2013, a trip for 12 cancer survivors in February 2013.

The participants are diverse, from a 24-year-old student to a stay-at-home mother of four and a 53-year-old doctor. What they share is their survival and a deep desire to travel to India. A solid plan needs financial backing and together with Wingham the participants are now fundraising for the plane tickets to get them there. They are looking for support through dollars and Air Miles to fund six more flights to India. For those going, the trip has deep meaning.

“For me, it’s about spreading hope and paying it forward,” says Joanne McDonald from Edmonton, Alta.  “Also, I can’t wait to be part of this trip with 11 other amazing cancer survivors. To share this experience with them will be a gift; something I believe will allow me to move beyond the cancer and into my fresh chapter.”

“Being a four-time cancer survivor I know what it’s like to live with the stigma of cancer,” adds Brenda Ware, from Austin, Texas. “Over 23 years ago I was diagnosed during a time when no one spoke of having cancer. My dream is to connect with those affected by cancer in India and share with them hope and strength.”

Wingham hopes the Dehli 12, as she calls them, will find inspiration in each other that goes beyond their shared cancer experiences. “I don’t want this to turn into a two week conversation about cancer. It’s about who you are now. What is your legacy going to be?”

If this pilot trip is successful, Wingham has ideas on how A Fresh Chapter can grow. There are other countries she would like to help people get to, including creating opportunities for people to travel within North America. The positive impact of those experiences wouldn’t just be felt by those travelling, she says, noting there would be ripples out into those people’s social networks and families. It’s about helping people find joy and meaning in their lives and giving them the space to lean into it a little more, she says.

“I went for a bone scan a few weeks ago. I was scared. Thankfully (the cancer) is not back but if it was … I could look back and say, ‘Man I lived the hell out of my life in ways that meant something to me,’” Wingham says.  “We all have the ability to do that.”