Editor's Note: This is the third of a series of 10 weekly articles that will appear each Thursday as part of the Be Kind campaign, an initiative spearheaded by Orillia's Emergency Management Committee.
Being sick with cancer can be one of the loneliest and scariest times in a person’s life. Being given a cancer diagnosis at the beginning of a pandemic only served to amplify that rollercoaster of emotions. That was — and is — the experience for Orillia’s Stacey Schell.
“I was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer in March of 2020. The timing couldn’t have been worse,” she said.
Between the pandemic and her illness, Schell had to give up her job and her home — her 17-year marriage ended and she had to move back in with her mother.
“My entire life has changed. Right now, it’s on pause. Luckily, I am very blessed. My mom is a nurse and I’ve been staying here with her," Schell explained. "But now, I need housing and there’s no housing. Right now is a difficult time.
"I think of it as a butterfly, you know? Like I’m in the cocoon right now and I will come out the other side very different. And with possibilities that I didn’t have before," she said.
While she may have been dealt a series of blows, Schell was surprised and is immensely grateful for those who have offered assistance.
“There have been so many people who have stepped forward and helped me and it’s just been amazing and transformative. It’s also been interesting to see who has and who has not stepped up and to have a deeper understanding of both," she explained. "And forgiveness for myself for the past when I haven’t stepped up because now I understand better.”
Schell has been the recipient of many home-cooked meals, soft shirts that help with radiation in addition to free stays at a cottage in Huntsville and a condo in Collingwood.
Chemo was hard on her teeth and someone gifted her with the money to pay a large portion of the bills that arose due to necessary dental work. “A big chunk was paid by a woman I’ve never met," she said.
Chemo was also hard on Stacey’s eyes and someone helped pay for bifocals to help ease the strain.
A friend presided over a 'Celebration of Life for Breastie,' the breast lost to cancer, and several friends attended over Zoom. During the proceedings, she made a plaster cast of Breastie and an artist friend is painting it for her to hang on her wall.
Friends have also shared music, stories, videos and pictures with her, as well as often amusing gifts. “These things feed my soul,” she said.
“People have really stepped forward. People I didn’t even know like Karol (Brown). I didn’t really know Karol — she knew people I knew and they were different circles that crossed," Schell explained.
"I don’t remember when she first contacted me, but she definitely initiated it through Facebook. She became a regular support and somebody that I chatted with and felt safe and comfortable with," said Schell.
"She made a ton of freezer meals that we ate for a long, long time. It was so helpful. I enjoy talking to her and I enjoy her company. She checks in. She’s been so consistent and kind. It’s a way of life for her and her husband," said Schell with gratitude.
Karol Brown said she’d rather talk about Schell than herself.
“I just did what I could, what anybody could do. I just made extra food for her and her mom," said Brown. "We got her freezer stocked up with some good food they could fall back on when they didn’t have the energy to cook—which during a fight for your life…I’ve seen my sister go through a fight for her life and I know what it takes to get through it.
"I haven’t had a similar situation to Stacey, but I can relate in some ways. I did go through a life-changing surgery myself about 10 years ago and I know how lonely it can be and I know how down and out you can feel,” Brown said.
When the pandemic hit, a lot of people, including Brown, turned to social media for information.
“And there was Stacey with the things she went through, and she was still able to share and provide inspiration to others," said Brown. "It inspired me and I thought, here is a woman who is fighting for her life and dealing with the worst and she deserves a friend. She and I started talking and I started thinking of ways I could make a difference and I realized that friendship was the first major difference a person could make.”
Asked how all this help made her feel, Schell said it's inspiring.
“During this pandemic where people are going through so much, people (still) have compassion. Not just for me. I see it all over," said Schell. "It’s really inspiring and helpful on those days because it gets pretty dark sometimes."
She said "it’s encouraging and it gives me hope. It’s very humbling. I’m full of gratitude. It splits my heart wide open — that’s how I feel. Sometimes, it’s tender and raw and hard to have a split wide open heart and other times it’s just so magical."
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