Angel nannies 'bring some humanity' for mothers coping with cancer

The volunteer Nanny Angel Network steps in to help when young mothers are forced to be cancer patients and caregivers at the same time.

Nanny Angel Network steps in to help when young mothers are forced to be cancer patients and caregivers at same time

The Nanny Angel Network in Toronto arranges for volunteers to provide child care to help take some of the pressure off mothers undergoing treatment for cancer. (Courtesy Nanny Angel Network)

(Listen to Alisa Siegel's full audio documentary on the Nanny Angel Network, "Be There For Me," in the player to the left of the page, or visit The Sunday Edition's site.)

Having cancer is an expensive proposition. Through the course of surgery, chemo and radiation there are drugs to buy, trips to make, income lost. If you have money and only yourself to take care of, it’s a punishing regime. If money is tight and you’ve got young kids, it feels impossible.

Young mothers are often forced to be patients and caregivers at the same time.

It was that image – of women in the chemo room with little children climbing all over them — that stunned Audrey Guth when she herself was receiving treatment in 2008 for breast cancer.

"How do they manage, I wondered, how could they possibly manage?"

With her own money from the commercial nanny agency she runs, along with private donations, Guth founded the Nanny Angel Network (NAN), and started sending out the first volunteers in 2009. Toronto-based NAN aims to provide a bit of relief – a weekly block of free child care for mothers being treated for any type of cancer.

"Our health care system is funny," says oncologist Ellen Warner, who founded and heads up PYNK, the first clinical and research program in Canada devoted specifically to the needs of women 40 and under with breast cancer.

"We’ll fund most aspects of women’s care – surgery, chemo, radiation — but we won’t fund someone to look after her children so she can get that treatment and get the rest she needs to get well."

Christel Heldwig, a nurse with the PYNK program at Toronto’s Sunnybrook Hospital, is often the first contact for young women after diagnosis. That's when they are at their most vulnerable, terrified for themselves and their kids. She’s grateful to have something like NAN to offer.

"NAN allows me to bring comfort to the woman just by talking about it. Just by saying, you know, 'There’s something I can help you with. Let me make that contact for you … provide you some hope that you will get through this.'"

'Who is going to take care of my children?'

One of the mothers receiving assistance from a volunteer Nanny Angel is 40-year-old Susan Baptiste. She has four young children under 10.

She says that when she was diagnosed with stage-three breast cancer, "I remember the doctor calling my name. I remember him saying it was malignant. And all I could think was 'Who is going to take care of my children?'"

Baptiste tried to keep working, doing in-home babysitting. But the side effects from chemo, and then radiation, were too much. She simply couldn’t cope.

"I couldn’t take care of the children, my husband was working two jobs, we couldn’t afford to pay someone, we had just moved. We’re a small family, we have no extended family. What do you do? It has been a real eye-opener to receive help from strangers who want nothing in return."

The stranger in Baptiste's case is Corinna Bowes. Originally from England, Bowes married young, worked as a nanny and is still raising her own children.

Last year, Bowes signed on as a Nanny Angel.

Susan Baptiste was her first assignment, and Bowes has been with her ever since. "When I look at Susan I think – that could be me someday."

Bowes helps Baptiste take care of the children. She comes equipped with a green Nanny Angel knapsack. It’s filled, Mary Poppins-style, with children's toys and crafts — building sticks, construction paper and crayons.

Whenever she can, she pays Baptiste an extra visit. She takes her food shopping and drives her to doctor’s appointments. She even accompanied Susan to her prosthetic fitting.

"Some days I feel torn," Bowes says. "I’m there for the children, to help them have a better day, let mom have a rest. But I always ask Susan, 'What would help you best today?' It’s difficult to leave when she is in pain and suffering."

Bringing some humanity

The Nanny Angel Network offers what help it can, but it's limited. Most often, volunteers come once a week for about a four-hour block, always during the day.

'There aren’t gaps in the system, it’s more like the Grand Canyon. NAN is trying to bring some humanity here.'—Christel Heldwig, nurse

It sounds like a trifle, and in a certain sense, it is. It’s simply what Nanny Angel can manage with 30 volunteers and a shoestring budget of $100,000 a year. The money comes from Guth's own private nanny agency (Diamond Personnel) and a group of donors, and it pays for the group's single full-time co-ordinator, as well as travel expenses and supplies for the volunteers.

The need for help is greater than what NAN is able to provide, and the volunteer group gets calls from across Canada and the United States from women looking for child care. For now, though, its reach is confined to Toronto, and Audrey Guth is very aware of the group's limits.

"We know that moms who don’t have sufficient child care at home often stop going for treatment or miss treatment," Guth says.

"We’ve had instances where moms had to have surgery and had no one to stay overnight for the children. And when we’ve recommended that they contact child and family services for help, they say no. They’re terrified of getting their children hooked into the system, terrified of losing their children if they get sicker, so they postpone their surgery or treatment."

"If her children aren’t being taken care of, she isn’t being taken care of," adds Christel Heldwig, the nurse at Sunnybrook Hospital's PYNK program.

"We need to open our eyes. There aren’t gaps in the system, it’s more like the Grand Canyon. NAN is trying to bring some humanity here. Who else will look out for these women?"