Volunteering with cancer support network helps Nuns' Island mom pay it forward

When Donna Coleman's daughter, Danielle, was sick with cancer, volunteers with Venturing Out Beyond Our Cancer (VOBOC) were there for her and her family.

Donna Coleman lost her grown daughter, newborn grandchild in space of 5 months

Donna Coleman shows CBC host Debra Arbec the stuffed lion - a symbol of courage -that came in her daughter Danielle's Vo-Pak when she was in hospital in 2011.

Donna Coleman treasures a small stuffed lion she keeps in her Nuns' Island condo.

It's the mascot for Venturing Out Beyond Our Cancer (VOBOC) — a Montreal agency set up by a cancer survivor to support adolescents and young adults with cancer.

The stuffed lion, a symbol of courage, was one of the items Coleman's daughter, Danielle Christiane Auger., received in a backpack — dubbed a "Vo-Pak" — while she was in hospital.

The pack was chock full of the essentials for making Danielle's hospital stay a little more tolerable: a toiletry kit, slippers, pyjamas, a t-shirt, a cozy blanket, a bandana — because when you lose your hair during chemotherapy your head gets cold.

When Danielle died in 2012, at the age of 30, VOBOC volunteers were there for Coleman, giving her permission to grieve.

"If you need to, yell, cry, scream," they told her.  "Whatever we can do for you."

Donna Coleman's daughter Danielle, left, died early in 2012. (CBC)

Special requests, last wishes

VOBOC 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.

Donations to VOBOC go towards filling the Vo-Paks, worth about $250 each. The organization also helps find young cancer patients the resources and support they need, and it fulfills special requests and last wishes for young people in palliative care.

Today, nearly four years after her daughter's death, Coleman helps fill up Vo-Paks for other cancer patients, and at Christmas time, she prepares baskets for young people spending the holidays in hospital oncology departments.

'They are hands on,' Donna Coleman says of VOBOC volunteers. They told her, 'If you need to yell, cry, scream - whatever we can do for you.' (CBC)

Holiday season difficult

It's still a painful time of year for Coleman.

Five years ago, her daughter was engaged to be married and pregnant with her first child.

She'd had a kidney and pancreas transplant four years earlier, but she was healthy and happy.

"Danielle was so thrilled knowing she was having a baby and so thrilled to know it was a little girl," says Coleman, with a sigh.

The joy was fleeting. 

Danielle began rejecting her transplants. She was undergoing treatment for that when she noticed her glands were swollen. Twenty weeks into her pregnancy, the devastating diagnosis came: acute myeloid leukemia.

"It's just dumbfounding, unbelievable," Donna says shaking her head, "She wanted to know why are all these things happening to me? What did I do wrong?"

Donna Coleman says volunteering with VOBOC has helped her process

7 years ago
Duration 0:34
Four years after her daughter's death, Donna Coleman helps fill Christmas baskets for other cancer patients.

Emergency C-section

Seven weeks later, while Danielle was preparing to go home between her first and second round of chemotherapy an ultrasound discovered a problem with the pregnancy. There was no amniotic fluid left. She was taken into surgery for an immediate caesarian section to try to save the baby.

"Olivia was born at 27 weeks. She was only a pound and a half. They tried for 19 hours to keep her alive," Coleman said.

Olivia died on Oct. 16, 2011.

By Christmas, hope was fading for Danielle.

"We spent every day, every night with her for the five months she was in the hospital." Coleman recalls.

Two months later, Danielle also died.

"The pain and suffering she went through were awful," her mother says, "but I treasure the time we had."

"We had time to say goodbye, and many people don't."

Today, Donna Coleman volunteers at VOBOC weekly. At this time of year, she packs Christmas gift baskets for young adults and youths with cancer who will be spending the holidays in hospital. (CBC)

'They' becomes 'we'

Through the darkest moments, the kindness and compassion of VOBOC volunteers were constant.

"When you're diagnosed with cancer, you're scared you're anxious, you're afraid," Coleman says."You've lost control of your life."

"VOBOC can't control the outcome, we can't control the disease, but we can ease your journey."

Note that Coleman now uses "we" when she talks about VOBOC. Volunteering with the support network — paying it forward — has now become a big part of her life.

She's just not ready yet to distribute the Christmas baskets she lovingly assembles.

"I will make the baskets, but I have not yet been able to bring myself to deliver the baskets. The last place I want to go is back to the hospital."

But Coleman does meet with parents who, like her, have lost a child to cancer, counselling them through their grief.

"It seems like there's just a common bond between everyone, it's an unspoken bond," she says. "We've all had pain and suffering, but to know that you're not alone in that pain and suffering is everything."

(Hélène Simard/CBC)

All donations collected at CBC's 37th annual Christmas Sing-In on Sunday will go to West Island Community Shares.

If you'd like to secure a seat, show up at the church at the corner of Sherbrooke West and Redpath streets by noon to pick up your entrance bracelet. Doors open at 2 p.m. and the Sing-In starts at 3 p.m. sharp.

This will also be the first year the Sing-In will be  streaming live on Facebook, so many more can take in this special CBC tradition. You can also stream the 2016 Christmas Sing-In  at, starting on Dec. 16.