The Doc Project

This woman's newfound family is a houseful of strangers in the fight of their lives

At a cancer treatment house 1,300 kilometres from home, Sarah Rosolen is finding strength in sisterhood.

At a cancer treatment house 1,300 kilometres from home, Sarah Rosolen is finding strength in sisterhood

At Sorrentino's Compassion House in Edmonton, Alberta, Sarah Rosolen (second from left) has realized that her housemates are powerful medicine. (CBC/Tanara McLean)
Listen to the full episode27:30

Her doctors told her it might be bronchitis or pneumonia, but all Sarah Rosolen knew was that she'd never felt that sick before.

And then it got worse.

In June in Fort Smith, N.W.T., Rosolen realized her illness was more than just a lung infection. Flash forward to now, five months later. Rosolen's living in Edmonton, at Sorrentino's Compassion House, a residence for women from out of town (or, in Rosolen's case, out of province) undergoing cancer treatment.

Rosolen is 1,300 kilometres away from her home and her family. But she's found a new family just when she needs it most.

No simple infection

"I got this splitting pain in my back. I couldn't sleep, my lungs were so heavy and I was seriously propping myself up to try to sleep," Rosolen said, remembering the symptoms that made her and her partner Dave Porter take action.

After a trip to the emergency room late that night, doctors in Fort Smith decided to send Rosolen for further tests at a larger hospital in Yellowknife, about 800 kilometres away.
Sarah reads to her son Bowan at home in Fort Smith before her diagnosis. (Submitted by Sarah Rosolen)

After going through a CT scan, Rosolen "heard the [doctors] talking outside of the curtain and they said '47-year-old woman, healthy, mass in the interstitium.'"

The medical team eventually revealed that she had a 10-centimetre tumour on her chest that was impacting her lungs and heart. They told Rosolen the situation was urgent, and she had to be flown out immediately for a biopsy at the Royal Alexandra Hospital in Edmonton, Alta., nearly 1,500 kilometres away.

In a daze, Rosolen called Porter back home in Fort Smith.

"He answered the phone right away and I remember saying, 'Are you sitting down?'" Rosolen said.

Porter was out cutting wood when he got the call.

"She said, 'I have cancer and I'm about to go into surgery,'" Porter recalled.

Stunned, he went into planning mode, trying to organize how the blended family of seven was going to manage this bombshell. 

To get a rest from cancer treatment in Edmonton, Sarah Rosolen and partner Dave Porter enjoy a family day-trip to Sylvan Lake, Alta. (Submitted by Sarah Rosolen)

Porter's first priority was to get to Edmonton so that he could be there when Rosolen awoke from her surgery. So, Porterpacked up the car and set out on the 13-hour drive with Rosolen's seven-year-old son, Bowan.

Despite the spotty cell service, he did his best to stay in contact with the hospital in Yellowknife, where Rosolen remained, having not been airlifted to Edmonton yet.

At the crossroads

After a couple of hours on the road, Porter came to the tiny crossroads town of Enterprise, N.W.T.

Turning right takes drivers to Yellowknife, while turning left takes you onto the highway toward Edmonton.

I got a text message and it said, 'You need to come to Yellowknife, Sarah's not going to make it.'-  Dave Porter

At this crossroads, Porter got a devastating text message about Rosolen's condition.

"It said, 'Don't go to Edmonton, you need to come to Yellowknife, Rosolen's not going to make it,'" he recalled.

"We get to the crossroads… and which way do you go? I have her boy in the back seat and this isn't going well."

For a few moments, Porter believed his partner was dead. Back at the Yellowknife hospital, Rosolen's heart stopped while the staff were prepping her for the flight to Edmonton.

Eventually they brought her back to life, and decided she was stable enough to make the long flight.

The good news finally made it to Porter, so he turned left at the crossroads and continued on the road to Edmonton.

It took a couple of weeks to get a confirmed diagnosis, but finally doctors in Edmonton told Rosolen that she had a rare form of cancer called acute lymphoblastic lymphoma.

Bowan and Sarah enjoy taking pictures together and talking about happy memories during their visits. (Submitted by Sarah Rosolen)

Choosing Compassion

Rosolen's treatment is expected to take two and a half years. The first couple of phases include heavy doses of chemotherapy multiple times a week, which means she couldn't go home to Fort Smith.

"My treatments are three or four hours a day. Sometimes all day," she said.

Porter made plans for Rosolen to stay with his family near Edmonton, but she was having second thoughts, given how gruelling the treatment might become.

"I can't imagine being in somebody else's house being so sick," she said. "I didn't know what this [treatment] was going to be, and it has been rough at times."

Renting an apartment or staying at a hotel was going to be too expensive. Then, Rosolen happened upon a list that the hospital had made of possible accommodations for patients.

That's when Rosolen first saw the words "Sorrentino's Compassion House."

"There was a website and I looked at it and I was like, 'Oh my gosh, this place is beautiful!'" she said.

Sorrentino's Compassion House is run by a foundation to give women an affordable and comfortable place to stay while undergoing active cancer treatment in Edmonton. It's less expensive than hotels and short-term rentals. The only stipulation is that women must live at least 50 kilometres from the city.

Meanwhile, Porter and son Bowan had to go back home to Fort Smith. Porter had to work, and Bowan had to return to his school and his routine.

Sarah missed her hammock from home in Fort Smith, so a Compassion House staff member brought one for Sarah to use. (Submitted by Sarah Rosolen)

Life at the house has been a transformative experience for Rosolen. Soon after moving in, she realized the women there were a support system she didn't know she needed.

"Some people have had real challenges with their family not understanding or not accepting their choices," said Rosolen. "Some people make a choice [about treatment] and their family gets upset… and they're intervening. That's really hard on people."

Rosolen said although the women in the house have varying types of cancer, they understand exactly what everyone else is going through.

Sarah Rosolen (second from left) with her newfound family in the Compassion House kitchen. (Tanara McLean/CBC)

"They're all know when you're having a bad day, and we're all happy if somebody is having a good day," she said.

Though Porter was worried about Rosolen being alone, he now realizes that the companionship of the Compassion House residents is powerful medicine. "When you're surrounded and supported by others who have a sense of how it's feeling — physically, emotionally, mentally — that's so important that they're able to have each other to lean on," he said.

The road ahead

Rosolen said knowing she's got a house full of women who are there to provide empathy and support makes even the worst days bearable.

She's on track to check out of the house in mid-February 2019. "I feel very lucky. I'm very cognizant of the fact that I almost died, and I feel like I have a second chance," she said.

"Having cancer changes your perspective and I'm more grateful for every day. I feel gratitude, and I choose to be happy."

Bowan dabs while visiting mom Sarah Rosolen at Sorrentino's Compassion House. (Tanara McLean/CBC)

Listen to the documentary by clicking the Listen link at the top of this page. Or download and subscribe to our podcast so you never miss a show.


Tanara McLean
About the Producer

Tanara McLean has been a journalist in Alberta since 2007, working as a TV reporter, print journalist, and TV morning show host. She enjoys telling stories through her journalism, and believes fully that people's personal stories are the heart of great journalism. Tanara is currently an associate radio producer at CBC Edmonton. Her first story with The Doc Project was 'I've been dealing with Megans my whole life' — real talk on being a young black woman in Canada.

This documentary was co-produced with Acey Rowe. It was edited with Veronica Simmonds.

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