Strength in Numbers

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Project plans to unite support services for women with breast and reproductive cancers

By Jane Shulman 

Cancer support networks in different parts of the country are looking at grouping women’s gynaecological cancers with breast cancer for the purpose of offering more support to women who have had a cervical, ovarian or uterine cancer diagnosis. Manitoba has been working on this for some time, explains Barbara Clow, director of the Atlantic Centre of Excellence for Women’s Health, and now New Brunswick and Newfoundland and Labrador are looking at their own models for delivering programming under the same umbrella.

In a 2008 report for Canadian Partnership Against Cancer, called “Where Do We Go From Here? Support services for women with breast, cervical, ovarian and uterine cancer in Atlantic Canada,” Clow and co-authors looked at the idea of merging services to meet the needs of the underserved gynaecological cancer population.

The idea is not without its detractors. Some have expressed concern that breast cancer groups might jeopardize their funding or lose their identity if they expand their mandate, or stretch their already overextended resources.

But the focus on breast cancer over the past several years, with fundraisers and awareness campaigns popping up all over the country, means that the disease has a lot of attention, and Clow notes that it’s the kind of attention that gynaecological cancers desperately need. While she says that fewer women are diagnosed with cervical, ovarian and uterine cancers combined than breast cancer in Canada each year, with the exception of cervical cancer, their prognosis is not as good. And the psychosocial support specific to their kind of cancer just does not exist.

Clow cites the work of volunteer-based Ovarian Cancer Canada as the only national gynaecologically-based cancer group. There are no national groups for people with cervical or uterine cancer. The needs are different, but there’s overlap, which is why a program that pools resources for cancers that affect women is so appealing.

The report recommendations included:
 Foster new research on the needs of women from vulnerable and disadvantaged communities who are faced with a diagnosis of cancer;

 Explore the possibility of adopting and adapting the processes and products developed by breast cancer support networks in Atlantic Canada to meet the needs of those with other women’s cancers; 

 Promote the creation of publicly funded cancer patient navigator programs throughout Atlantic Canada.

Clow says the next step is to look at how feasible this idea is, and where the desire lies. So far, nurses and service providers involved with the planning and delivering of programming are most passionate about it because they see the possibilities that lie in making the most of the services they can offer.

Jane Shulman is a the Director of Knowledge Exchange at the Canadian Women’s Health Network and a former staff member of Breast Cancer Action Montreal