“I Was Never Alone”: Martha’s Cancer Coaching Story

By Cancer Foundation on November 26 / 2020


When Martha Attridge Bufton’s husband Ian was diagnosed with cancer, she knew there would be many challenges ahead. Thankfully, she and her family were able to get the support they needed close to home through peer support and the Cancer Foundation’s Cancer Coaching program. Pictured above: Martha, Ian and their two sons Sean and Bruce. 

Ian Bufton was diagnosed with cancer in March of 2019, and though his family was shocked by the news, they were determined to face it together.

“We talked about each step of the journey, as a family,” says Martha, reflecting on the early days of her husband’s diagnosis. “From diagnosis, to the decision about the type of intervention, to how life might change after surgery—being able to share with each other helped us process all the information together.”

But as they began moving through Ian’s treatment plan, they realized just how challenging and overwhelming is was becoming to find the information they needed at the right time, in order to make good decisions. “Even though both Ian and I are quite thoughtful and attentive, we struggled to understand that even though we were given options about whether Ian needed surgery or not, there really wasn’t any option…he’d need the surgery in order to have the best outcome,” Martha explains. “It was confusing to be given options, when we really didn’t have any options at all.”

So, Martha began looking for alternative sources of information and support as soon as Ian was diagnosed. As an advocate for peer support, her first step was to look for peer groups that help patients and families living with colorectal cancer. She was able to connect with Robert Hamilton, the co-facilitator of the local colorectal peer support group, and her search also led her to the Ottawa Regional Cancer Foundation and the Cancer Coaching program.

“Both Robert and Michelle, my Cancer Coach, were very helpful,” Martha says. She appreciated that Robert could speak directly from his own experience and clearly understood both the medical process and the emotional journey, and she also found Michelle to be very supportive.

“Not only was my coach, Michelle, knowledgeable and experienced, she was also kind and very willing to spend time with us—which is what we needed,” Martha states. “We needed time to ask all kinds of questions—sometimes the same questions more than once—and we needed someone who could listen without judgment when we were angry, or sad, or bewildered.”

Michelle quickly became a valuable source of both information and support for the Bufton family, helping them with their various emotional and informational needs. Whether she was going over Ian’s medical charts with him, explaining medical terminology, answering questions about surgery and treatment, or just listening to both Ian’s and Martha’s frustrations and fears, Michelle was there to make sure the family’s coaching experience was tailored to their unique needs.

And what made her help even more valuable was how close by she was.

The Winchester District Hospital, where Ian and Martha met with Michelle, is only 15 minutes from their home. “Living with a serious medical problem is emotionally and physically draining, and I wanted support that didn’t have us spending more time and energy driving than absolutely necessary,” Martha says. “Not having to commute left us with more energy to cope with whatever else was going on at the time.”

In addition to providing emotional support, a Cancer Coach can provide practical guidance, too. “When Ian’s follow-up colonoscopy in April was cancelled due to the pandemic, Michelle clarified that his appointment should be a priority once such procedures resumed,” Martha says. “She recommended that Ian try reaching out if he didn’t hear from the surgical team promptly enough, which ended up being the right thing to do.”

Looking back, Martha thinks that her family’s experience with cancer would have been much more difficult without Michelle’s help. “Both in terms of getting good information, but also emotionally,” she says. “I think I would have felt even more frightened and angry and, ultimately, much more isolated. Knowing that I could reach out to Michelle meant that I was never alone.”

Another plus was the way Michelle understood that Martha and the rest of the family played important roles in Ian’s unit of care. “Ian might have been the patient but I was also taking this journey and needed to be recognized,” Martha says. “I was a critical component to Ian’s wellbeing and recovery, but there were times at the hospital or in certain appointments that I felt invisible.”

Today Ian and Martha are doing well, continuing to put their energy into helping Ian stay healthy. “This means advocating for more frequent colonoscopies, but it also means staying positive, enjoying time with our family, and enjoying our work and our lives.”

She adds, “It might also involve getting better at swing dancing!”

For anyone else facing cancer right now, Martha recommends building up as supportive a network for themselves as they can. “Your immediate medical team may not be able to provide enough support to help on an emotional or psychological level, but there are many others who can,” she says. “Reach out to a peer support group, and find a Cancer Coach; someone who has the time and expertise to really be supportive. That kind of relationship could make a positive difference in how you feel along the way.”

Overall, Martha says her Cancer Coach was a valuable partner in making sure her family felt cared for, validated, and supported as they made decisions and faced new challenges.

“We needed some who really remembered our names, our circumstances, and kept in touch with us on that very human level as we moved from diagnosis, to surgery, to recovery,” she says. “We needed someone who answered our phone calls and emails promptly. We needed someone who would meet with us as a couple and individually…and that was our Coach, Michelle.”

“Cancer in the family is frightening, but staying connected to others with the right knowledge and expertise can be very comforting.” – Martha Attridge Bufton

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