Fighting a battle against cancer is a heavy burden – a trusim but nevertheless it needs to be said – dealing with the illness while living in a foreign country, estranged from your closest support structure and trying to communicate in a language that is not your own, seems almost beyond manageable.
For over 15 years, the English Speaking Cancer Association, a non-profit organisation of volunteers and professionals, has been the extra pair of ears for foreign cancer patients living in Geneva, Vaud and the French border areas. While the assistance it offers is not medically based, its councellors provide emotional and practical support, which is in many cases harder to find – and harder for patients to ask for, too – when it comes to such a frightening disease. Most importantly, it offers its services in English, a language often more accessible to expatriates and the non-Francophone community.
Raynelle Arcaini, one of the three professionally trained counsellors at ESCA, has been involved with the association since 2007, most recently as the Support Coordinator. Arcaini’s commitment to the organization stems from her personal experience with breast cancer in 2003.
“Foreign cancer patients face a shocking diagnosis, and when they hear it spoken in a language that is not their own, they are sometimes even unable to process what they are hearing,” said Arcaini in an interview with Le News.
“We often go directly into the most catastrophic thinking when we receive a diagnosis of a disease that is potentially life threatening,” she added. “As a counsellor, I work to normalize and bring it into a more realistic scale, in a language they are comfortable with, and help them move into the first step of their treatment.”
ESCA’s counsellors meet patients at any stage of the process, whether they have been recently diagnosed or have been living with cancer for years. After the patient’s needs are assessed, they are offered different types of assistance, either in the form of peer support, one-to-one or group counselling, or even casual coffee encounters every morning. ESCA also offers a phone help-line 24 hours a day and a Drop-In Centre with access to a library two days a week.
Aside from three professional counsellors, ESCA currently counts on 68 trained volunteers, 27 peer supporters, and almost 300 members. In 2013, they collectively offered 1,140 hours of peer support and over 160 hours of counselling.
ESCA also complements and works alongside the local medical community. Major hospitals in Geneva direct many of their patients to ESCA’s services, and leading organizations like the Ligue Genevoise Contre Le Cancer have now recognised ESCA as a sister organisation.
While ESCA estimates it actively supports 60 patients of several nationalities at any given time, its impact extends far beyond the individual. Arcaini explains that its community of patients is very hard to quantify. “We’ve realized the repercussions of this illness are as hard on the family as they are on the actual patient,” she said, “so in many cases we provide counselling and support to them as well.”