Diverse efforts improve well-being of cancer survivors

Dr. James Robar, NSHA Medical Physics’ chief of staff, is developing a technology that detects patients’ slightest moves.
Dr. James Robar, NSHA Medical Physics’ chief of staff, is developing a technology that detects the slightest moves of patients during radiation therapy.

The population of cancer survivors is steadily growing as cancer rates rise and new treatments save more lives, but many survivors face ongoing pain, functional limitations, health problems stemming from treatments, and the possibility of recurrence. NSHA researchers are working to prevent complications and improve the well-being of cancer survivors who are living with cancer as a chronic disease.

Leading efforts to improve health care and quality of life for cancer survivors in Nova Scotia is Dr. Robin Urquhart, Ramia Scientist in the NSHA/Dalhousie Department of Surgery. Dr. Urquhart is literally one of a kind. She is the only researcher in Atlantic Canada to receive a Foundation Grant through the Canadian Institutes of Health Research’s 2016-2017 competition. The fact that she won this coveted five-year, $960,000 award is a testament to the quality and vision of her work.

“The CIHR Foundation Grant is allowing us to build a solid program of research so we can develop, test, refine, implement and evaluate new pathways to improved care for cancer survivors,” she says. “This includes building capacity in primary care to serve these patients’ often complex needs, improving coordination between primary and specialist care, and ensuring rapid response to suspected recurrences.”

Involving survivors, families and health care providers in the research is a key part of Dr. Urquhart’s program. “It doesn’t matter how ‘good’ my research is if it doesn’t focus on what’s important to survivors and people in the health care system,” says Dr. Urquhart. “The research has to be relevant to make an impact.”

Other NSHA researchers are improving quality of life for cancer survivors by improving treatments. In head and neck cancer, for example, surgical oncologist Dr. Matthew Rigby is pioneering new surgical procedures to minimize post-op morbidity and the chance of recurrence. Medical physicist Dr. James Robar, meanwhile, is developing new technology to improve the precision of radiation beam targeting, to prevent long-term negative effects—such as cognitive problems, vision loss and partial paralysis in patients with head and neck cancers.

The federal Research Support Fund (RSF) program helps to fund indirect costs of research at research hospitals across the NSHA. Established in 2003, the RSF (formerly the Indirect Costs Program) helps Canadian universities and colleges, along with their affiliated health research institutes and research hospitals, with the indirect costs associated with federally funded research. In addition to specific projects, the RSF supports research space facility fees, electronic data access and resources, Research Services’ staff, regulatory compliance, research commercialization and intellectual property services and support at Dalhousie University and affiliate hospitals such as the QEII Health Sciences Centre.

This article is part of the Nova Scotia Health Authority Research Annual Report 2017.