June 15, 2023

Nursing researcher moves cancer survivorship research from slightly stagnant to sustainable

Colleen Cuthbert says National Cancer Wellness Awareness Day is a reminder for survivors to focus on all aspects of their lives for well-being
Dr. Colleen Cuthbert
Colleen Cuthbert is Tier II Canada Research Chair in Patient and Family Centred Cancer Survivorship. Faculty of Nursing

As a medical receptionist in a radiology clinic, Diane Huband's job was to book exams for cancer screening.

I never imagined that cancer would ever be my reality and I was angry,” she says, almost five years after learning she had colorectal cancer. “There were so many other conflicting feelings including fear of telling my adult children and family my diagnosis, but I was also confident that with the right medical help I would heal.

Helping to alleviate some of the short- and long-term impacts of a cancer diagnosis that Huband and others have similarly experienced is the mission of Dr. Colleen Cuthbert, NP, PhD, Tier II Canada Research Chair in Patient and Family Centred Cancer Survivorship, and her Cuthbert Lab team. Drawing attention to her work on the upcoming National Cancer Wellness Awareness Day (June 26) will let survivors know they are not alone.

"1.5 million Canadians are currently living with and beyond cancer, and this prevalence is continuing to grow. To address this growing demand we need to understand the complex and unique needs of cancer patients," says Cuthbert, who is an assistant professor for UCalgary Nursing, adjunct professor in the Cumming School of Medicine's Department of Oncology and member of the Arnie Charbonneau Cancer Institute.

"I realized through my 15 years of interaction with patients and their families that a diagnosis of cancer is life changing. I also realized that a diagnosis doesn't just end when treatment is over: patients and their families can struggle for a long time afterward with a variety of physical and mental health problems." 

Becoming a study participant is therapeutic

Huband met Cuthbert as she completed her chemotherapy and was asked to become a patient and family adviser. “What an honour to be part of Colleen’s Colorectal Cancer Priority study; I had new feeling of pride and happiness having an opportunity to use my experience to improve the lives of others,” says Huband.

It was extremely rewarding to be heard and to realize that cancer research is still a priority. Colleen’s work is important to me because it feels like it is her and I against colorectal cancer."

Diane Huband

Diane Huband, Cuthbert Lab research participant.

The goal for National Cancer Wellness Awareness Day is to ensure Canadians understand there are wellness resources in the community and there is always help when needed. Cuthbert is focused on evaluating biopsychosocial health needs and health outcomes of cancer survivors with the goal of ultimately improving their health and well-being and that of their families, and developing innovative approaches to survivorship care.

Benefits of a Canada Research Chair 

Having the CRC gives Cuthbert protected time for research and allows for recognition of her expertise in the area of survivorship. "It allows me to be more productive and work more effectively in trying to solve the problems cancer patients and their families face. Being recognized as an expert in this area helps me connect with other high-calibre cancer survivorship researchers so we can collectively try to solve the problems that cancer patients and their families face."

Cuthbert strongly believes that the patient voice is an important aspect of her program of research. "I have partnered with participants to determine top-priority research questions in colorectal cancer and through the development of a patient and family advisory council. These help ensure I continue to focus my research efforts on what matters most to patients."

While Huband acknowledges there is always a possibility that cancer will return, she is not consumed by fear or worry. I feel that my cancer diagnosis was not to make me struggle and suffer,” she explains.

Cancer instead came into my life to use my voice for compassion and change.

"My hope is that we can move toward innovative and sustainable ways to support cancer patients and their families living with and beyond cancer," says Cuthbert. "Having a Cancer Wellness Awareness Day reminds people that addressing all their needs — social, physical, spiritual, emotional and practical — is an approach that will help them live well. 

"Survivorship research has a few stagnant points. We are very good at documenting the problem and testing interventions through research. However, there is very little implementation into real-world practice or sustainability built in. We need to think about sustainability, patient-oriented approaches and innovation right from the start."  

In late 2018, the West Island Cancer Wellness Centre, a registered charity dedicated to offering compassionate care and support to anyone experiencing cancer, applied to Health Canada to proclaim June 26th National Cancer Wellness Awareness Day. The request was approved and the first National Cancer Wellness Awareness Day was held on June 26, 2019. 

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