When Sharon MacInnis was diagnosed with ovarian cancer a little over a year ago, she had to travel six hours from her home in Glace Bay to Halifax to see the cancer specialist. She returned home that same day.
“It was horrible; a very hard and long day,” she said. “I was really sick, and so bloated I looked like I was six months pregnant. Being in a car for all that time was very uncomfortable.”
Ten days later, MacInnis was back in Halifax for her first treatment. With five- or six-hour treatment days once every three weeks, in addition to surgery and more chemotherapy for close to a year, MacInnis resigned herself to long travel days, the expense of shuttles, hotels and meals out, as well as poor weather conditions.
After her second treatment MacInnis was desperate to get home, but the shuttles to Cape Breton were cancelled because of bad weather. She paid $600 for a taxi to take her home.
“I couldn’t stay any longer,” she said. “I was feeling miserable and I needed to be at home in my own bed.”
MacInnis is not alone in feeling this way. Dr. James Bentley, head of gynecologic oncology for Nova Scotia Health Authority (NSHA), said having to travel for treatment places an added burden on patients who are already quite sick.
“Hours in a car or bus when not feeling well, being away from family and friends, and not being able to sleep in your own bed all take a toll,” he said. “Our team wanted to find a solution. We had a long tradition of providing follow-up care in Cape Breton, with specialists travelling monthly for clinics, but we decided it was time to expand the service.”
Building on the success of other services available in Cape Breton, Dr. Bentley formed a gynecology working group to consider the options. The working group proposed adding chemotherapy treatments in Sydney with day-to-day treatment and coordination provided by a nurse practitioner.
The proposal was accepted and Arlene Billard, a nurse practitioner with a specialty in oncology, joined the cancer team in Cape Breton last April. She trained with the Halifax team and continues to work closely with them to meet patients’ needs.
Billard co-ordinates lab work, and performs physical exams on patients the day before treatment to ensure they are well enough for chemotherapy. She manages patients’ side effects and new symptoms, and works closely with visiting gynecologists on monthly clinic days. She also provides follow-up to patients who have completed treatment. In keeping with a healthy lifestyle, Billard offers information about cancer screening, maintaining a healthy weight and smoking cessation.
“My days are busy,” she said, “but it’s a good busy. Patients are thrilled not to have to travel to Halifax for treatment and to know that if they have issues, I can see them.”
Between May 2017 and May 2018, 38 Cape Breton women who were diagnosed with a gynecological cancer have been able to have appointments with a gynecologic oncologist, as well as chemotherapy treatment, at the Cape Breton Cancer Centre, instead of having to travel six hours to Halifax.
Billard is among those who are grateful. Her third treatment and all that followed were at the Cape Breton Cancer Centre, only a 15-minute drive from her home.
“My house, my food, my bed – it made all the difference,” said MacInnis, who has finished treatment and is busy enjoying life: going for walks, doing yard work, attending theatre, arts and craft workshops.