Gabrielle Fecteau was diagnosed with cancer in the summer of 2015. It was Hodgkin lymphoma, a form of cancer that attacks the lymphatic system, the part of the immune system responsible for triggering the body’s defences.
At the time, she had just completed her second year of a bachelor’s degree in criminology and history at the University of Ottawa and intended to pursue further studies in law. Needless to say, the diagnosis derailed her plans—but it also set her on a path to what she now considers to be her calling.
A new routine
Gabrielle was forced to leave Ottawa and move back in with her parents in Timmins to undergo chemotherapy treatments. Though the chemo was taking a physical and emotional toll on her, she refused to give up her studies. She took courses at the Université de Hearst, in Timmins, between visits to the oncologist.
“During the treatments, my studies served as a distraction,” she says. “It was a way for me to escape the reality that I was a young adult with cancer, even for a few moments. My goal was to return to school in Ottawa after my chemo, which encouraged me to work harder towards my recovery. I saw it as a light at the end of the tunnel.”
A new routine quickly set in. It consisted of going to school four days a week and undergoing chemotherapy treatments every other Friday.
“The weeks where I had chemo usually weren’t very good,” says Gabrielle. “But I did what I could. The other weeks, when I felt better, I would catch up on my coursework and prep myself for the difficult week ahead. I would also take the opportunity to do typical things that nineteen-year-olds do,” she laughs.
The comeback kid
In a short time, Gabrielle's life had changed a lot. Her priorities and her career choice did too. Rather than going into law, as she had originally planned, Gabrielle opted for a master's degree in social work. She will be among the students being celebrated at Convocation on November 1.
“Social work more closely fits the life I want for myself,” says Gabrielle. “While I was undergoing treatments, my parents, my friends and all the healthcare professionals I was working with were really supportive. They treated me like a whole person and helped me achieve my goals. That's exactly what I want to do for others. It’s rewarding, but also tangible. It can have a real impact in people’s lives.”
During her master's degree, Gabrielle interned with the Ottawa Regional Cancer Foundation, where she worked as a cancer coach, and even launched a pilot project offering long-distance coaching to people with cancer living in Timmins.
“Coaching is really about identifying what’s important to the person, what are their strengths and values that could motivate them, and then establishing a plan that will help them achieve their goals,” she explains. “The idea is to empower them and get them thinking about the future. Having cancer is quite an event. It's traumatic. That’s why it’s important to show them that their strength has not disappeared. They’ve just lost sight of it temporarily."
A bright future
Gabrielle is currently working as a Learning Specialist for the University of Ottawa's SASS – Student Academic Success Service. She provides tools and services to students with disabilities so they can succeed in academia. It’s a service Gabrielle knows well, having used it herself before leaving for Timmins and when she returned to the nation’s capital.
“When the chemo treatments are over, people often think that the hardships are over too... But that's not the case,” reflects Gabrielle. “When I returned to the University of Ottawa, I still had cognitive difficulties and attention problems, and I needed help. I am very fortunate to have support from all sides – from my family, my friends and also from my school. I want to help others succeed by ensuring that they have access to education.”