Hearing your doctor say, “you have cancer,” is a nightmare for anyone. Now imagine facing that diagnosis without having a safe place to go home to, throughout treatment. That is what ShelterCare program participant, Rob, experienced, shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic began. “During COVID, there weren’t places to just go. It was the day before my birthday, in 2020, that I got diagnosed (with colon cancer) – I got surgery instead of cake that year. With the help of someone at Willamette Valley Cancer, I got into ShelterCare’s Medical Recuperation program – I didn’t even know it existed!” Rob explains.
ShelterCare Medical Recuperation (SMR) is a 19-bed facility that provides safe, emergency shelter for people who are experiencing homelessness and have recently been discharged from the hospital after an acute medical episode, yet still require limited care. Rob talked about his experience living there, “At SMR, every morning, staff is on the intercom asking how you’re doing. They would control my meds for me too.” One of his favorite parts was the food, “The guy who cooked over there, Boyd, he really tried for variety. We had trout one time! I took pictures of it!”
Rob described the treatment process he went through, “I had my first ostomy surgery the day after my diagnosis…then a couple of weeks went by and I started a combination of oral chemo and radiation. I did that for 6-8 weeks. Then there’s six weeks of recovery…you suddenly become an old doddering guy who uses a cane! Then it was time for infusion chemotherapy…I did that for four months.”
The long process meant that Rob couldn’t stay at SMR for all of it, “I was having surgery and I was in the ICU at McKenzie (McKenzie-Willamette Medical Center) when my stay in the SMR program terminated and I had to be over at the other place (ShelterCare Short Term Housing) now.” He explains what it meant to him that ShelterCare staff were able to make everything work in order to keep him housed throughout treatment, “I have no idea what I would’ve done had there not been ShelterCare programs. It was the perfect thing at the perfect time each time.”
The symptoms Rob experienced while going through cancer treatment meant he needed extra support, “I remember when I did chemotherapy at SMR, it was one of the weirdest things I ever did. I lived in my head a lot. A thought would just go out of my head like smoke and go poof. I had no idea what I had asked, if I’d even asked a question, or if I’d even had a thought. I tried really hard to keep my thoughts organized, but they just didn’t survive…so it was cool to have staff telling me I needed to get on housing waitlists.” SMR provides program participants like Rob with case management and resource navigation as well as everything they need to safely recover, such as three meals a day, medication monitoring, and transportation to appointments.
It’s hard to know what to expect when beginning cancer treatment. One thing Rob wasn’t expecting was having to experience addiction and withdrawal during the process, due to being prescribed OxyContin during treatment, “I was on Oxy. I was pretty sure I was addicted and I wanted to go through a (addiction) program, but not when I had four different machines attached to me.” Rob ended up tapering off the Oxy too fast triggering a withdrawal, “I had CAHOOTS in for a couple days in a row. The third day, the triage person at Riverstone (clinic) said I needed to go to the ER and get fluids. They put one bag in and it was still too low. They put another bag in and pow I came back! A few days later, I had my last Oxy!“
The whole experience was a wake up call for Rob, “I have discovered there’s a lot of meaningful reality to the phrase ‘medically fragile’,” he explained, “It’s like being new again and that’s freaking scary!”
Rob has won his battle against cancer and is now living in his own place, where he still has staff available to check in with him through his recovery, “They have a wellness check here – you have to hang it outside your door by 10:00 P.M. and if you don’t, they check on you. They also check on you in the morning.” He says his recovery is going well, “I just talked to the doctor this morning and asked if I’m cleared for the treadmill and he said yes!”
“I am on the 13th floor here – I looked out my window and saw a hawk fly right past one time! I have imposter syndrome here, “Really? This is for me??” Rob humbly explains, “I feel like I owe now because of these programs; I have to figure out a way to give back – a lot. I would’ve been not doing well in a cardboard box.”
“Now that I’ve moved in here, I’ve got at least a year to work on finding out what my new boundaries are and what I can do,” says Rob, pondering what’s next for him, “There aren’t going to be big wins all the time. You’re going to have to look at the small wins and acknowledge them.”
ShelterCare’s Medical Recuperation program provides the support that helps people like Rob safely recover from a variety of medical diagnoses, such as cancer.