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Forget Uber. These drivers are volunteering to take cancer patients to the doctor

A volunteer driver with the American Cancer Society's Road to Recovery program gives a cancer patient a ride to treatment.
A volunteer driver with the American Cancer Society’s Road to Recovery program gives a cancer patient a ride to treatment.
(Courtesy of the American Cancer Society)

After a pandemic hiatus, the American Cancer Society has relaunched its Road to Recovery program and is enlisting volunteers

In an effort to put more San Diego cancer patients on the road to recovery, the American Cancer Society has relaunched its longtime volunteer driver program.

This year, nearly 190,000 people in California will be diagnosed with cancer, according to the organization. Consistently going to medical appointments is vital to the success of cancer treatment, but for some patients, getting there can be the biggest roadblock, program organizers said.

Many patients undergoing chemotherapy or radiation treatment have multiple appointments per week for months at a time, said Demy West, senior program manager of cancer support with the American Cancer Society. And side effects from those treatments, such as dizziness, can prevent patients from being able to drive themselves.

Created in 1981 to address the problem, the society’s Road to Recovery program enlists volunteer drivers to transport cancer patients to and from their essential appointments.

“Even the best treatment can’t work if a patient can’t get there,” West said. “Each volunteer significantly impacts a cancer patient’s journey.”

In 2019, more than 6,000 rides were requested through the program across San Diego County, West said. After a pause due to COVID-19, the program returned in November and is already seeing an uptick in patient ride requests, West said. They’re averaging 10 patients per month, with the capacity for up to 20 currently, West said.

To make the program easier for drivers and patients to use, the organization has partnered with a mobile platform called Roundtrip that lets drivers easily view and accept ride requests and lets patients submit requests and get notified when they are accepted. Patients can also still call the American Cancer Society to schedule rides. 

West says organizers hope the updates will spur more San Diegans to get behind the wheel for the program.

“We had barely 30 percent of our Road to Recovery drivers pre-pandemic return,” West said, and with gas prices so high, it’s been challenging to find new volunteers. Currently, there are only 21 active drivers, and some can drive only occasionally on holidays or summer vacations.

The flexible program allows volunteer drivers to provide as many or as few rides as they want, whenever their schedules allow it.

That’s what Road to Recovery driver Micah Collins said first attracted him to volunteering in 2017 after he saw a flyer at his local laundromat.

“Like most, unfortunately, my family has a history of cancer, so it’s really nice to help out and give back to the people dealing with cancer and their families,” Collins said. “It’s been an honor to be able to help them in what’s likely the most challenging time of their lives.”

He said it didn’t take long for him to realize the impact he was making.

“On the very first ride I ever did, the patient said they simply wouldn’t have gone to their appointment if I hadn’t driven them, and right then, I knew how much of a direct impact I really could make,” he said. “A lot of people will have family members who don’t have the option to miss work to drive, or they have no family in the area at all.”

Now, Collins typically picks up at least one ride per week and often chooses rides close to his San Diego home or La Jolla workplace.

“I think that’s the beauty of it, is that they don’t have to feel that there’s a time frame. They can actually make a difference when they’re available,” West added.

Right now, West said the program is seeing the greatest demand from patients who live in North, South and East county areas and need to go to UC San Diego for treatment.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, the American Cancer Society has also enhanced health and safety protocols for the program, requiring drivers to be vaccinated and adhere to more stringent sanitation protocols, West said.

To help new drivers understand the guidelines and how to use the website, the organization provides an online training program.

All volunteer drivers are screened and must have a good driving record, a current and valid driver’s license, proof of adequate car insurance, access to a safe and reliable vehicle, schedule availability and regular internet access.

To learn more about volunteering for the Road to Recovery program, visit cancer.org/drive.

If you are a patient in need of transportation, contact the American Cancer Society at 1-800-227-2345 or visit cancer.org/support-programs-and-services/road-to-recovery.


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