Partnership and compassion during a family’s experience with cancer

Valentina and her mother

Despite advances and vast improvements in cancer survival rates, cancer remains a scary topic for many. And the taboo that still surrounds a cancer diagnosis can be isolating for patients and their loved ones. With the help of North York General’s Cancer Care and Palliative team, Valentina Galvis and her mother Patricia, didn’t have to go it alone.

Patricia was a single mother who immigrated from Colombia in 2004 with her daughter, Valentina and son, David. Quickly, Patricia become involved in the Colombian community. She helped newcomers get settled and was involved in many extracurricular activities in her church and community. When Patricia fell sick, all her dedication and love was reciprocated.

“If I could use one word to describe my mother, it would be ‘selfless’,” says Valentina.  

In 2015, an excruciating under arm pain brought Patricia to North York General’s Charlotte & Lewis Steinberg’s Emergency Department. At only 45 years of age, she was diagnosed with stage 2 Breast Cancer and was immediately referred to North York General’s Breast Cancer Program.

“My mom stayed so hopeful through it all. She had trust in what the doctors were doing, and she had a lot of faith in what was planned for her,” says Valentina.

Patricia’s daughter Valentina was her mother’s sole caregiver towards end of life, and together they spent many hours inside North York General’s walls for appointments, checkups and chemotherapy.

 “We always saw someone with a smile on their face, everyone from porters to technicians would check up on us. My Mom felt so welcomed, in a place she never wanted to be – we became part of the NYGH family.”

After pushing through chemotherapy and a mastectomy and thinking she was in the clear, the cancer spread to Patricia’s lungs. In 2016 Patricia was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer and referred to NYGH’s Palliative Care team.

“We didn’t know what that meant, but she was hoping for a miracle,” says Valentina. “The team had a sense and understanding of how my mother might be feeling, and that made everything a little bit easier.”

By May 2017, Patricia’s cancer metastasized to her brain. Valentina stopped working and studying to dedicate even more time to her mother’s care.

“Everyone was fantastic. We worked together to coordinate my mom’s care, and I always felt involved and part of the team,” says Valentina. “They taught me how to administer medicine, and the doctors and nurses were always only one phone call away”.

Patricia decided to stop chemotherapy, and to live out her last days at home. She received 24-hour care for her final weeks, surrounded by a circle of community care.

Valentina remembers the last day as hectic. “I kept thinking, how can I make the final phone call?” I was in awe when the nurses showed up and walked me through everything. I felt support even weeks later when staff reached out and shared their sentiments.”

One of NYGH’s palliative care physicians wrote a university reference letter for Valentina, who is now at Osgoode Hall Law school in Toronto.

“I am forever grateful I got to say goodbye to my mom. Many don’t get that opportunity. And, I share my story to express my gratitude for our journey and all the people along the way.”

This article first appeared in the February/March 2021 issue of The Pulse.

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