The recent grassroots movement demanding a radiation therapy centre for the Yarmouth area is a welcome development for the Yarmouth Hospital Foundation, says its chair, Don Cook.
The Foundation Board has been working quietly behind the scenes for some time to explore the need for a cancer radiation treatment centre for western Nova Scotia to be based at Yarmouth Regional Hospital.
The possibility has been on the radar ever since the Dr. Edwin Janke Cancer Centre opened in 2009 to serve Yarmouth, Digby and Shelburne Counties. It offers chemotherapy and a variety of other cancer services and support.
In August, 2014, Dr. Tetteh Ago, chief of Oncology for the province, and medical physicist Dr. James Robart made a proposal to the Nova Scotia Health Authority (NSHA) to locate a linear accelerator — the machine used in radiation therapy — at the Yarmouth site.
That was followed by a number of meetings between provincial officials, politicians, medical specialists, and hospital and Foundation officials.
Two years ago, oncologist Dr. Helmut Hollenhorst presented a report proposing that radiation therapy be offered in addition to the excellent cancer treatment already available at the Yarmouth site. He recommended that a linear accelerator that had been approved as a replacement for one in Halifax be reassigned to Yarmouth.
Hollenhorst’s report emphasized the financial, physical and emotional burdens on patients who have to travel to Halifax for radiation, but also noted that a significant number of patients refuse radiation treatment because of the difficulties associated with pursuing it in Halifax.
Despite the meetings and reports, by June, 2016, the project seemed stalled and in doubt.
So the Foundation Board established an ad hoc committee that meets monthly to see how it could best present the case for the location of a radiation therapy centre in Yarmouth, says Cook, who is also the committee’s chair.
Then, last winter, Yarmouth Town Councillor Sandy Dennis came out publicly to outline the difficulties she’s faced as just one of a great many cancer patients from western Nova Scotia who need to travel to Halifax for radiation treatment. As a result Yarmouth Town Council adopted a motion to send a letter to the health minister requesting the establishment of radiation treatment at the Yarmouth Regional Hospital. Similar motions have since been adopted by Yarmouth Municipality and Argyle councils.
The groundswell grew exponentially a few weeks ago when Yarmouth teacher Derek Lesser launched the Yarmouth Cancer Support Network group on Facebook, inviting community support for the radiation therapy unit and providing a forum for those who have experienced the hardships of seeking such treatment in Halifax to tell their stories.
“A grassroots movement is the absolute best way to get our message out there,” says Cook. “Seeing the pictures and listening to Sandy Dennis’s story as it unfolded and she went through treatment for lung cancer, and the momentum that has picked up since Derek Lesser launched his Facebook group is inspirational.
“It’s just so heartbreaking to hear the stories about the experiences of cancer patients and their families and the hardships they’ve had to endure. In just a few short weeks, the Yarmouth Cancer Support Network has acquired more than 7,000 members and that’s a huge boost,” Cook says.
“But the thing we can’t lose sight of is that the cancer radiation treatment centre isn’t just for Yarmouth, or Yarmouth County, or even the Tri-Counties,” he says.
“It would serve all of western Nova Scotia, including Queens and Annapolis, and make it easier for all of the cancer patients in this area to be able to have treatment and get home at night and be with their families.”
The support that this endeavour has received from Yarmouth MLA and Education Minister Zach Churchill has been impressive, he says, adding that both Argyle-Barrington MLA Chris d’Entremont and Clare-Digby MLA Gordon Wilson are also behind the initiative.
The ad hoc committee is looking forward to meeting with Dennis and Lesser, Cook says. “The ball is rolling and now we all have to get behind it,” he says, adding that it’s essential to reach out to all of the communities in western Nova Scotia for support.
In the meantime, the ad hoc committee continues to research the costs and implications of acquiring a radiation therapy centre for Yarmouth. The NSHA is supposed to review the placement of the next linear accelerator this fall, Cook says, so it’s imperative to keep the momentum growing.
The best case scenario would be approval in the next provincial budget, he says. But that would be just the launch point. It would be followed by months of design, approvals, construction, staffing and of course fundraising, since 25 percent of the cost would have to be raised in the community.
“That’s when the Foundation gets to work, rolls up its sleeves and starts pounding the pavement to raise the community’s share of the cost,” Cook says. “With so many people here affected by cancer, and who realize how important it is to have something here, you’d be surprised at the money we’ll raise.”
Dr. Edwin Janke Cancer Centre, Yarmouth Regional Hospital
The Cancer Centre at Yarmouth Hospital officially opened in July, 2009. When it opened, the Cancer Centre doubled the number of chemotherapy chairs to 10 at Yarmouth Hospital. It is a bright, modern facility for patients and caregivers as well as staff, physicians, including visiting consultant physicians.
Cancer patients living in South West Nova Scotia currently have access to treatment consultations and follow-up for both chemotherapy and radiation therapy at Yarmouth Regional Hospital. Patients are also able to have most of their chemotherapy at the Yarmouth Regional Hospital, with perhaps the most inspiring view in Yarmouth County.
The Cancer Centre occupies a full wing in Yarmouth Hospital, and features:
- The Harmony Room, a special place for patients undergoing complementary therapies
- Cancer Resource Room
- Patient Navigator services (office is also in the centre)
- Space for education sessions
- Space for Counselling sessions
- Space for the “Look Good, Feel Better” education program
- Space for consults with other health care professionals
- Comfortable and “homey” waiting areas for patients and families
The space was later re-named the Edwin Janke Cancer Centre, in honour of surgeon and former Chief of Medical Staff Dr. Janke, who was a key advocate for the cancer program.
- Yarmouth Regional Hospital is also home to a screening nurse to support colon cancer screening.
The Nova Scotia Cancer Care Program, operated by NSHA, is expanding the use of video technology so that patients who live in rural parts of the province do not always have to travel for an appointment with a specialist.
The telehealth approach lets Nova Scotia patients meet face-to-face with their doctor without leaving their home community. The oncologists use telehealth for:
- case conferencing
- reviews and reporting test results
- care/treatment planning with patients, families and healthcare professionals
- systemic treatment reviews
- supportive care visits
In a survey of 140 patients, over 98 per cent reported they were satisfied or very satisfied with the care received via telehealth.
The Nova Scotia Cancer Care Program is also working to improve coordination of care so that if patients are travelling for treatment (for example from Yarmouth to Halifax), other tests and appointments can also be organized for the same day. Providing Nova Scotians with quality cancer treatment and care as close to home as is safely and sustainably possible is a priority for NSHA.