Breast cancer survivors find hope

As a retired nurse with a PhD in nursing, Marion Allen knew right away when she found a lump in her breast that she needed to see a doctor. Nearly 50 years of nursing prepared her for the breast cancer diagnosis she would receive—a diagnosis that she wouldn’t let derail her life.

That’s why Marion, who had also worked as a professor at the University of Alberta, was determined to stick with her plans to visit Europe with her husband, Greg.

“I knew cancelling our trip wouldn’t do any good, as I knew I wouldn’t find out my diagnosis till we were just about ready to come home,” Marion says. “I tried my best not to think about what having cancer would mean when we returned, and we had a great time.”

Marion had surgery to remove the growth soon after she returned from her travels, just a few weeks after she’d discovered the lump in 2018. About the same time, a close friend recommended she try Healing Connections at the Misericordia Community Hospital, the only program of its kind in Alberta for breast cancer patients who have recently had surgery. More than just a support group, Healing Connections addresses both physical and emotional needs of breast cancer patients with the help of an interdisciplinary team.

As a retired professor in the Faculty of Nursing at the U of A, Marion understood how the surgery worked and what to expect from a medical and nursing perspective, so she didn’t think she’d need to participate in the program. But her friend convinced her to give it a try. She was surprised by how much it offered her. 

“I found the program so valuable,” she says. “I learned a great deal from the occupational therapist, physiotherapists, navigation nurse and dietitian. All were open and encouraging, and every question was perceived as valuable.”

Patients from as far away as the Northwest Territories have taken part in Healing Connections, says nurse navigator Debbie Blais. “There are healthcare professionals to help with medical concerns, and then we have a room full of other survivors to remind them that there is hope. Sometimes a cancer diagnosis can make people feel very alone, and I think an environment like this reminds them that they aren’t,” says Debbie. “It’s a safe environment to share their experiences.”

To ensure patients have the knowledge and support they need after surgery, the multi-disciplinary program includes dietitians, physiotherapists, occupational therapists, nurses and volunteers. The group size is fairly small, with 10 to 20 people at each session. Patients are encouraged to attend three afternoon sessions, where professionals share important information about recovering from surgery, including what to eat and special exercises. It’s also a forum where participants can share their experiences.

Marion says there were also opportunities to receive one-on-one nursing consultation from Debbie if patients needed it.

“Her knowledge of breast cancer and its treatment was remarkable, as was her willingness to share this with the group,” Marion recalls.

For Marion, whose cancer is now in remission, one of the program highlights was the volunteers, who are all breast cancer survivors. The volunteers attend the Healing Connections sessions and even visit patients before their surgeries to offer support and reassurance.

“They were there for us as we each shared our journey, and they were comfortable with tears, anger and fear,” Marion says. “Their willingness to tell their own story made us comfortable telling ours. There was something so helpful about knowing they had been there.”

There is nothing as powerful as being reassured by someone who understands what you’re experiencing, says Claire Lefebvre, a retired nurse who has volunteered with Healing Connections for nearly 17 years.

“I remember a breast cancer survivor talking with me in the hospital just after I had my surgery, and I’ll never forget the words she said that day,” Claire says. “It meant so much to hear her say that I could get through it and be OK.”

Healing Connections is open to men and women who have recently had breast cancer surgery, ideally within one to two weeks of surgery. Patients don’t need a referral to sign up. If you or someone you know could benefit from Healing Connections, call 780-735-2768.

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