National Cancer Survivors Day
June 7 is National Cancer Survivors Day—a day to celebrate life, inspire those who are recently diagnosed, and provide support for families.
According to the Canadian Cancer Society, approximately 617 Canadians are diagnosed with cancer every day, and there are more than 32 million cancer survivors worldwide. We all know someone who has been touched by cancer.
Dr. Jennifer Stephens is an Athabasca University (AU) Faculty of Health Disciplines associate professor and incoming Bachelor of Nursing (BN) Program Director. For the past 13 years she has worked as an oncology nurse at the Vancouver General Hospital (VGH) on the inpatient unit for the Leukemia/Bone Marrow Transplant Program, where she continually witnesses the difficult reality faced by those living with a cancer diagnosis. She has worked in oncology, palliative care, and hospice nursing for 20 years in both the US and Canada. Her research specializes in the history of cancer nursing and the patient experience with blood cancers.
“We use cancer as an all-encompassing term,” she explained. “But cancer is a catch-all for over 120 different diseases. With blood cancers we describe survivorship more in terms of remission, which means the cancer is not detectable. The risk is that it will return at any time, but our goal in cancer care is to help someone get to the five-year mark post-diagnosis.”
She added that while it is important to celebrate cancer survivorship, we have to be careful about how we view the militarized “fight with cancer” language, which can imply that if someone dies as a result of cancer, somehow they didn’t fight hard enough and they lost a battle.
“We use cancer as an all-encompassing term, but cancer is a catch-all for over 120 different diseases. With blood cancers we describe survivorship more in terms of remission, which means the cancer is not detectible. The risk is that it will return at any time, but our goal in cancer care is to help someone get to the five-year mark post-diagnosis.”– Dr. Jennifer Stephens
In Stephens’ research and work as a bedside nurse, she speaks with patients and helps give them language and structure around their experience, helping them shift how they think and feel about their experience with blood cancer.
“When people think of cancer, they typically think of tumours. The public is most familiar with breast, prostate, and lung cancers. To have a blood cancer is different than a solid-tumour cancer,” she said. Blood cancers include leukemia, lymphoma, and multiple myeloma and can include pre-cancers like myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS).
She said blood-cancer patients often struggle with identity. Because blood flows through their whole body, they often say, “It’s in my blood—I AM cancer.” She has made it her goal to help shift those views, and help these patients identify and talk about their diagnosis in a way that makes sense to them and their unique disease.
“I look at my work at the bedside as a calling, and it’s my duty to bring comfort and a voice to these patients who are marginalized. There’s not a lot of research for the patient voice in blood cancers, so I’m trying to provide them with a platform to let others know about their experience.”
“I look at my work at the bedside as a calling, and it’s my duty to bring comfort and a voice to these patients who are marginalized. There’s not a lot of research for the patient voice in blood cancers, so I’m trying to provide them with a platform to let others know about their experience.”– Dr. Jennifer Stephens
A ‘Stellar’ patient story
“In my many years working in oncology, I have cared for probably thousands of patients,” Stephens said. “There are some who imprinted on me and have influenced my development and practice. I had a patient from Taiwan named Stellar. She had an acute leukemia and came to my unit, and she radiated the most positive amazing energy and spirit. She would often tell me, ‘It’s all good. I am happy. You are happy.'”
“She had an allogenic transplant and went into remission rather quickly, which allowed her to return to Taiwan to be with her family. Every once in a while, she will call the hospital and let me know she is still okay. She made such an impact on me as someone who looked at everything with joy and acceptance, When asked about why I love nursing, or why I have passion to work at the bedside or to research cancer, I think of patients like Stellar.”
To learn more about research from the Faculty of Health Disciplines, visit the Faculty Research Web page.