Fueling cars and kindness from patient to patient

Janette Coombs, Nick, Annie Aquila
Janette Coombs and her son Nicholas, present gas cards to oncology social worker Annie Aquila. Annie will pay the cards forward to other cancer patients.

I wish Janette could see patients’ faces when I give them a gas card and tell them it’s from another cancer patient.

Stephanie (Annie) Aquila, LICSW

It only took Janette Coombs six weeks after she’d learned she had breast cancer to shift her focus from the mixed emotions and feelings of a cancer diagnosis to relieving other patients’ struggles instead.

Sitting next to other patients with their visitors in the waiting room or in the Infusion Suite, Janette couldn’t help but overhear them talk about their struggles. “Everyone is there fighting a different type of cancer,” she says. “And so I started thinking, how can we change the energy from a scary situation into something uplifting?”

Janette and her 28-year-old special needs son, Nicholas, have always been very community-oriented and very involved with baking for people in need. She came up with the idea to bake and sell dog bones and use the profits to purchase gas cards for other patients at Dartmouth Cancer Center.

"Treats for Treatment" started as a way to get Nick involved, but it's also about helping other cancer patients and making healthy treats for dogs. Janette and Nick sell a bag of 7 bones for 5 dollars. “I know that I'm not a very savvy businesswoman when it comes to the money aspect, but I always thought 5 was a good easy number. Four bags would be 20 dollars, which would give us a gas card. So, that's how it all started,” says Janette. 
Soon, local vendors such as Tremont House of Pizza, Leo’s Market and Meriden Market started carrying the bones. Before Treats for Treatment, Janette had started a Facebook page for Nick called The Elf Shelf, all about the customized baskets that they used to put together for people. “I was telling the Treats for Treatment story to Nick’s growing following on Facebook, and before I knew it, I was mailing dog bones to Georgia and Florida, and I don’t even know these people!” laughs Janette.

The best of the best

As avid dog lovers, Janette and Nick make sure the treats are healthy for dogs, with only 6 ingredients: peanut butter, flour, honey, egg, water and baking powder. “And we use the best of the best for the dogs’ health: Teddy's natural peanut butter, King Arthur flour and local organic raw honey,” she says. The all-natural treats have about a 5-day shelf life but can be frozen for up to 6 months.

Janette works with the social workers at Dartmouth Cancer Center to find the patients in most need of gas card assistance. The cards come with a heartfelt envelope that Janette purchases from Hobby Lobby and on which she hand-writes, “No one fights alone,” with a paw print to show that the card was all from dog bones. “I wish Janette could see patients’ faces when I give them a gas card and tell them it’s from another cancer patient,” says Stephanie (Annie) Aquila, LICSW, an oncology social worker in Dartmouth Cancer Center’s Comprehensive Breast Program.

In 4 years, Janette has raised more than $5,300 for gas cards. “That’s not just me, this is our community saying, ‘We’re going to support this cause!'” she says. “People who don’t even have animals buy them for their neighbors or their grand-pups. Even my doctors and nurses are buying the bones!”

One hundred percent of the profits go directly to buying gas cards. Janette doesn’t even take out money to buy the ingredients. Several years ago, when King Arthur learned of the project, they kindly donated 8 bags of flour. Otherwise, Janette fronts the cost of the ingredients from her own pocket. “Like I said, I’m not a businesswoman. But it’s not about that. If it helps other people then that’s where my drive is.”

Passionate about giving back

Going through breast cancer treatment for the third time has not jaded Janette. “I’m very passionate about giving back,” she says. On top of Treats for Treatment Janette has participated in The Prouty for 10 years, normally cycling for other friends who are battling breast cancer. This year, for safety reasons, as she recovers from her second mastectomy, she was unable to cycle her normal route. “So this year I’m doing the 10K walk instead!” she laughs. With the annual match from The Byrne Foundation, Janette managed to raise $5,200 for cancer research and patient support services. 

It takes a village to make this happen and people are supporting the cause.

Janette Coombs

They say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Janette’s son Nick has also made a huge fundraising footprint for Dartmouth Health Children’s. As captain of Team Nick for 4 years, he turned a broken hip from a grand mal seizure into broken records, forming the biggest team on record at 554 members and raising an impressive $68K. They even earned attention from local media. “He’s like the little mayor of Claremont,” laughs Janette. “People know him. They recognize him at Hannaford buying the ingredients for the dog bones.”

Janette’s giving doesn’t stop there. In addition to the surgery, she is undergoing chemotherapy and immunotherapy again. Her goal is to always have a window seat for her infusions. When she found out that one nurse was buying bird seed for all the bird feeders outside the Infusion Suite windows, Janette started donating bird seed as well. “Because it brings joy! We have to focus on the little things that bring joy. Sometimes that means a bird landing on your feeder when you’re getting infused with chemotherapy,” she says.

Giving and receiving

Janette does a lot of meditation, loves to cook, walk her dogs and spends time in nature, where she feels most at peace. “It might feel weird to take time for yourself, but you have to keep your cup full or you will be depleted,” she says. Having received and learned about Reiki during her own treatments, she also completed a course to become a Reiki master herself so that she could give Reiki to other cancer center patients.

Janette and Nick Coombs
Left and center: Janette and Nick at home baking dog treats. Right: three-time breast cancer survivor Janette at this year's Prouty 10K walk. 

Janette is a giver, but accepting help is one of many lessons she has learned through her cancer journey. “People ask if they can help, and I never want to impose. But I know how good it feels to do something for someone else, and by saying ‘no,’ I’m depriving them of that feeling," she reflects. "It’s not natural for me to ask for or accept help, but I’m learning to say ‘yes’. It takes a village to make this happen and people are supporting the cause.”

Janette hopes the mission can inspire others to step outside themselves and also help patients to know they’re not alone. She says anyone who would like to contribute, even donating a 20-dollar gas card that can change someone’s day, can message her through Nick’s Facebook page called The Elf Shelf.