Strategic pursuits – the 2018 Volunteer Service Alumni Award recipient

AU’s 2018 Volunteer Service Alumni Award recipient, Annette Cyr, is a savvy businesswoman whose grit and determination will reduce Canada’s melanoma cases and raise disease awareness.

Annette Cyr saw Athabasca University’s (AU) master’s in business (MBA) program as a great way to launch her consulting company and provide some added credibility.

“Busy” is a way of life for Annette, her husband, and their three dogs—except for a few times when unexpected life hiccups forced them to slow down, at least for a minute, like when Annette received her first melanoma diagnosis.

 

Pushing through and moving forward

Annette worked during the day and did her MBA schoolwork at night, finding herself rubbing away at an itchy, sore ankle. She ignored it before finally seeing her doctor who then sent her to a dermatologist. Months later, a biopsy determined she had malignant melanoma: aggressive skin cancer.

“It was right during my statistics course, not my strongest suit,” she explains, adding that AU was very supportive and asked if she wanted to take a break from the program until she got her health all sorted.

“I just needed to keep going to get through it because I didn’t want to lose contact with my group … even though you’re working virtually, you get to know the people in your group and I didn’t want to fall behind.”

“I just needed to keep going to get through it because I didn’t want to lose contact with my group,” Annette says. “Even though you’re working virtually, you get to know the people in your group and I didn’t want to fall behind.”

Annette’s treatment options included surgery and skin grafts, keeping her immobile and wheelchair-bound for three months. This forced her to hire someone to take care of her business’ literal running since she was busier than expected, and as an entrepreneur, had no one else to do the things she couldn’t.

Already an active volunteer, Annette’s MBA helped her attain more positions on for-profit and non-profit boards, but it wasn’t until her cancer returned in 2007 that she realized her desire to delve deeper into non-profits.

 

Helping to build awareness

“I noticed another lump on my leg and thought, ‘This can’t possibly be,’ but … if I wasn’t persistent, I wouldn’t be here to tell the tale,” Annette says regarding a botched biopsy she had to press to get redone, which came back positive for melanoma.

“I had numerous surgeries, countless body scans—bone scans, PET scans, CT scans, MRIs—and three or four surgeries that fall of 2007, along with multiple skin grafts,” Annette recalls.

Doctors kept telling her the outlook didn’t look very good, leaving her wondering if she would be forced to close her business and what was next for her?

“I was looking for something purposeful as I was going through treatment and realized not many people knew much about melanoma, including the physicians and nurses I talked to,” she says, even though it is the seventh most commonly occurring cancer in Canada.

Annette ran into many people with other forms of cancer, but never encountered someone with melanoma. She didn’t have a patient support group.

Knowing the isolation and desperation felt when given a life-changing diagnosis, Annette wanted to build an organization that connected patients, caregivers, and the medical community to provide resources for everyone, no matter what role they played in a diagnosis.

In 2009, after collaborating with others, the Melanoma Network of Canada was created. Annette put up $25,000 of her own funds for the website and basic infrastructure while volunteering full-time hours to the cause and still running her consulting business.

“Most organizations fail within the first five years and my thought was, ‘This isn’t going to fail; it’s going to have some legs and continue on long past my involvement.’ That was my goal and continues to be.”

The Melanoma Network of Canada is the sole organization focused on melanoma in the country, employing a team of four.

“Often as a patient, you go weeks without anybody calling you back … about what’s the plan of action for treatment” Annette explains. “You’re waiting in the dark, not knowing what the next steps are; What should I be concerned about? What is my diagnosis? Am I going to survive?”

The Network remedies those in-the-dark questions with a website chock-full of information, but also produces a quarterly newsletter for the country’s major cancer centres; holds nation-wide, face-to-face support groups; organizes an annual fundraiser walk in 22 different sites across Canada; and hosts patient-information sessions in roughly 10 major centres coast-to-coast each year with expert speakers, including oncologists.

“Another major challenge is to help educate our front-line physicians on identifying melanoma early because … if you can identify it and treat it early, there’s a near 100 percent cure,” Annette explains.

Sun safety and melanoma prevention are also things she is passionate about sharing with others.

Another melanoma recurrence came for Annette in 2012 but she continued to put in Network volunteer hours. Plus, her consulting business forged ahead.