Pamela Chakraborty was told she had cancer on Jan. 3 in a corner office of the Jewish General Hospital.

Despite finding a lump in her breast weeks prior, the 39-year-old never really believed her tests would come back positive. She was outwardly healthy and felt fine. She travelled with her mother to the hospital by bus, believing they would be going home shortly.

But when the nurse met with them, the fear that lingered in the back of her mind became reality. She was diagnosed with stage two breast cancer and it had already spread to her lymph nodes. 

She cried so hard nurses had to bring her multiple boxes of tissues.

"I remember looking out into the city and thinking, wow, my whole life is going to change now."

She thought of her two children, of her job as a waitress, and about the prospect of losing her waist-length hair.

"When they told me it was for real, I didn't know how to deal with it," she said. "I was spiraling."

Pamela

Pamela Chakraborty poses with her children, Oscar and Adele, at the West Island Cancer Wellness Centre. She recently received news she's cancer-free after being diagnosed with stage two breast cancer in January 2017. (Kate McKenna/CBC)

Centre provides much-needed 'me' time

A pamphlet promoting the West Island Cancer Wellness Centre was inside the pile of medical documents given to Chakraborty following her diagnosis.

The centre is one of 40 non-profit agencies supported by West Island Community Shares, the beneficiary of this year's CBC Montreal Christmas Sing-In charity drive. 

The Kirkland centre offers holistic care, free of charge, to its participants.

Services including therapy, massage, arts and crafts, and yoga are available for anyone living with cancer.

Chakraborty felt reticent about visiting the centre. As a young, fit woman, she didn't see other women like herself in the hospital waiting rooms. Despite having cancer, she didn't see herself as a cancer patient.

WICWC

The West Island Cancer Wellness Centre opened its new location in Kirkland, Que. in December 2016. It's three times as large as the old facility in Beaconsfield, Que. (Kate McKenna/CBC)

But it was near her home, so she went to check it out. Soon, she began to see her visits as something she could do to treat herself. Staff also helped her find ways to talk to her children Adele, eight, and Oscar, nine, about her illness.

She found comfort in the warm atmosphere — a stark contrast to the sterile hospital visits. She enjoyed the yoga and craft classes, and benefitted from the therapy.

Other participants at the centre helped her navigate cancer treatments, encouraging her through her chemotherapy. 

"A lot of the ladies were telling me, you know, it's not unbearable. They said, 'if we can do it, you can definitely do it,'" Chakraborty said. "It's a huge help."

Pamela Chakraborty on the importance of the West Island Cancer Wellness Centre0:38

Bigger building means higher costs

The West Island Cancer Wellness Centre opened nine years ago in a bright yellow house in Beaconsfield, Que. It was the dream of Debbie Magwood, a West Island woman who was first diagnosed with cancer in her 20s.

The centre's goal is to provide spiritual and emotional care to cancer patients — something Magwood said was lacking when she was trying to navigate the healthcare system as a cancer patient.

The facility in Beaconsfield was too small to handle the demand for the centre. After a capital campaign, a new building — three times the size but still bright yellow — opened in neighbouring Kirkland at the end of 2016.

Debbie Magwood

Debbie Magwood, the founder of the West Island Cancer Wellness Centre, said fundraising is constantly a worry. (Kate McKenna/CBC )

A shoe-string staff of seven part-time workers makes sure the centre runs smoothly, but 1,500 hours of free programming are provided by volunteers.

Last summer, the instructor behind the children's arts and crafts classes considered stopping because the only children interested were Chakraborty's kids, Adele and Oscar. When they protested, the instructor, Colleen, agreed to continue teaching — just for them.

The children are eager to show off what they've made: a small box made of Popsicle sticks, monsters made out of clothes pins and personalized magnets.

"I like how Colleen takes her time to volunteer to do arts and crafts with us," said Oscar.

Fundraising a challenge

It's fundraising, not finding volunteers, that's a challenge for Magwood. The operating costs rose when the centre moved into the larger building.

While West Island Community Shares provides a small portion of their operating budget, it receives no government support.

"There's no absolutes. There's no given," said Magwood. "It's constantly a bit of a worry in the back of your mind." 

Oscar, Adele and their mom will soon stop visiting the centre. Chakraborty recently learned she's cancer-free after a gruelling year of treatment. The family is grateful for the warmth, joy and comfort provided by the centre over the past months.

Oscar and Adele

Pamela Chakraborty's children, Adele and Oscar, also benefitted from programming at the West Island Cancer Wellness Centre. (Kate McKenna/CBC)

More stories related to our 2017 charity drive:

With files from CBC Montreal's Sara King-Abadi and Sarah Towle