Thinking inside the box

·4 min read

When the debilitating disease came knocking down their doors all those years ago, neither Kristina Hunter nor Tara Torchia knew what to expect.

Cancer is excruciating, agonizing and numbing — almost all at once, the Winnipeg women told the Free Press. And no one seems to understand how it feels.

“Yet sometimes, the strangest and most unexpected thing will happen,” Torchia said Thursday. “Somehow, your entire life will be altered. But all you’ll ever want to do is make sure others in the same boat can be helped from feeling like that in some way, any way at all, that’s possible.”

Hunter and Torchia know what it’s like waiting by your doorstep, hoping for good news when a life-altering illness seems to bring only the rainy days. “We also know soup, flowers and fruit can only do so much when you’re battling with your life,” said Hunter.

That’s why the Winnipeggers hope their small business can bring something unexpected to your house, designed entirely to help alleviate the symptoms and manage the emotions of going through an illness like cancer.

The Unexpected Gift Box is a Manitoba-based business that ships curated packages across North America out of a quaint, brick-and-mortar store, called the Unexpected Gift on Osborne Street.

Priced at affordable rates, a gift box filled with hand-picked items from local vendors will arrive at a colleague, family member or friend’s home as a one-time package or a recurring monthly gift on a subscription, without any contact necessary upon delivery.

The boxes include practical items, like a specialized skin cream for radiation burns or hot and cold therapy bags to go with a soft hat warming up a shaved head. And it will also include things like empowering cards, journals and cosy slippers to help the recipient feel emotionally supported.

“Everything in there will have a reason, tailored specifically with someone in mind,” said Torchia. “And everything will be coming from two girls who have been through that hardship themselves.”

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It all started when Torchia got diagnosed with breast cancer, around eight years ago.

At 42, she began an uphill battle with a disease that, per recent statistics from the Canadian Cancer Society, more than one in eight women in the country will develop in their lifetimes.

“Nothing could’ve prepared me for it,” she said. “It’s not like it was something anyone close to me, or in my family, had. And I was the only one on my radar to get it.”

She quit her full-time job, sought chemotherapy and eventually had reconstructive surgery.

With every piece of hair that fell from her head because of her treatments, Torchia grew more tired and exhausted than the day before.

“I loved how much people had tried to help me, all those flower arrangements and food and everything they tried,” she said. “But no one — not a single person at all — understood what I was going through, and what I really needed.”

That was until she met her new friend Hunter through a support group, who was also diagnosed with breast cancer.

“Suddenly,” said Torchia, “a stranger seemed to get me more than anyone else who I had known my whole lifetime.”

For Hunter, then an environment professor at the University of Manitoba, it was much the same.

“It was like meeting someone who you could say anything to, without needing to overexplain because they truly understood you,” she said.

“And really,” added Hunter, “that’s the kind of thing that we’re trying to emulate with this box — that when you get one, you’ll know there’s someone out there who knows what you’re going through and can relate to you.”

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, the business partners say the isolation of having an illness like cancer can feel all the more difficult.

“You’re already quarantined from the rest of the world, but now you can’t even see people like your family who would’ve come to see you otherwise,” said Torchia.

Hunter says that’s why their gift boxes are “the perfect warm hug” to give someone battling an illness when you can’t see them — especially this holiday season. And it’s a gift the two-time cancer survivor knows she’d have wanted to receive herself.

“But more than a gift,” she said, “it’s a meaningful way of letting them know they’re special to you in this completely painful time, all while understanding their needs when no one else seems to.

“You’ll know it’s a safe, sustainable way to get something that’s just right for your loved one.”

Temur Durrani, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Free Press