Alberta cancer stories

Cancer services and challenges: a companion document

Cancer is a devastating illness that dramatically affects the lives of patients and their families. Changing Our Future: Alberta’s Cancer Plan to 2030 was developed to help prevent most cancers, cure more cases of cancer, and reduce the suffering of those affected by it.

The Changing Our Future companion document provides additional information on the current services provided by Alberta’s cancer care system, and the challenges the system faces. It also highlights the stories of Albertans affected by cancer; some of whose stories are included below.

Tomorrow Project

Cancer Plan companion imageDorothea Klein has a form of cancer that cannot be cured. Since the first lump was found under her arm in August 2006, the cancer has spread. Currently, the goal of her treatment is to maintain quality of life and keep the cancer from spreading further. Klein knows that research can help unlock cancer’s secrets for future generations.

She and her husband, Pat, are enrolled in an Alberta Health Services study called The Tomorrow Project, which started in 2000 and will continue for decades. It follows the lives of about 50,000 people – initially without cancer, as was Klein – to find out how lifestyle, the environment and genetics contribute to people’s risk of developing cancer and other chronic diseases. “They need to find out what causes cancer and how we can get rid of it,” she says.

Aboriginal Navigator program

Cancer Plan companion imageSpecial patient navigation services are helping more Aboriginal Albertans access cancer care. The first Aboriginal navigator in Alberta is located at the Cross Cancer Institute in Edmonton, with plans to expand services to southern Alberta.

Aboriginal navigators provide information and services in a manner that considers the cultural differences and needs of Aboriginal patients. They also provide an important link between the health system, patients, their families, and communities. These are important services, as social and cultural differences, as well as challenges specific to Aboriginal communities, can impact Aboriginals’ ability to beat cancer. Aboriginals are more likely to be diagnosed late and to fail to return for treatment and follow-up care.

“The Aboriginal navigator program is one important step forward in helping more Aboriginal Albertans access cancer care when needed,” says Angeline Letendre, Provincial Coordinator of Community Oncology.

Expanded radiation treatment services

Cancer Plan companion imageMike Ross, a cancer patient from Lethbridge, is able to get radiation therapy at the local Jack Ady Cancer Centre. The centre opened in 2010 as part of a provincial expansion in radiation treatment services. “I can leave my house at 9:20 in the morning, have my treatment and be home before 11,” says Ross. “I get to sleep in my own bed at night. It’s wonderful.”

Bringing a radiation treatment centre to Lethbridge was the start of the Alberta Radiation Therapy Corridor. So far the centre has provided radiation therapy for some 600 patients. Red Deer and Grande Prairie will also soon have radiation treatment centres, helping to further reduce the number of Albertans who have to travel far from home for treatment.

Alberta’s Radiation Therapy Corridor is a good example of providing cancer care services close to home, a priority of Alberta’s new cancer model.

Cancer survivor (young adult)

Cancer Plan companion imageMike Lang was 25 and an avid outdoorsman when he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. He began aggressive chemotherapy almost immediately. “All the young adult cancer survivors I’ve met say isolation is one of the biggest things,” says Lang. “You feel like you’re the only person your age to ever get cancer.”

After a retreat sponsored by Young Adult Cancer Canada, Lang had an epiphany. He would gather 7 other young adult cancer survivors from across Canada for a journey of a lifetime: an 8-day trip down Oregon’s Owyhee River in what he called “adventure therapy.” “When you meet other people your age who have cancer and who really understand what you’re dealing with, it’s very powerful,” says Lang.

Prevention research

Cancer Plan companion imageMarlene Nelson (left) spends time on a treadmill as part of the Beta Trial study led by Dr. Christine Friedenreich (right) that examines the relationship between exercise levels and breast cancer risk.

The project is funded by the Alberta Cancer Foundation, which committed $22.6 million in 2011 to support cancer research projects like Dr. Friedenreich’s.



Cancer Plan companion imageMore than fifteen years ago, former cardiac nurse Ann Brown was diagnosed with colon cancer and given a 50% chance of survival. “If I hadn’t had the screening, they wouldn’t have caught the cancer and I wouldn’t be here today,” says Brown.

Brown had no family history of colon cancer, but one day found blood in her stool and immediately went to her family doctor. “Colorectal cancer is one of the most common causes of cancer-related deaths in Alberta – too many people die from it each year,” says Dr. Catherine Dubé, the Medical Lead for the Alberta Colorectal Cancer Screening Program within AHS. “If detected early, it can be cured.”


Cancer Plan companion imageYoung adults with a type of brain cancer called oligodendroglioma have the potential to double their life-expectancy thanks to research led by Dr. Gregory Cairncross, who holds the Alberta Cancer Foundation Chair in Brain Tumor Research and heads the Department of Clinical Neurosciences at the University of Calgary.

Radiation therapy is the standard treatment for this type of brain cancer. Dr. Cairncross discovered that by combining radiation therapy with chemotherapy, the cancer’s growth significantly slowed. Now, the life-expectancy with treatment for this type of brain cancer is 15 years – up from 7 years.

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Expanded workforce

Cancer Plan companion imageCross Cancer Institute pharmacist Johanna Lo assists a patient in learning how to take medications and understanding the effects. Pharmacists and other health professionals play an essential role in management of cancer and comorbidities and help ensure that patients are active participants in their own health.