The Globe and Mail : How Women's College Hospital is transforming care for women's cancers

2017-10-23 3:26:02 PM

This article was first published on in a special series with Women's College Hospital Foundation to showcase the work and impact of Women’s College Hospital (WCH). From October 23 to November 9, the Globe and Mail featured select WCH research and clinical programs in both print and digital format.

Within 10 years, care for cancers affecting women across Canada will look radically different. This is the vision of the Peter Gilgan Centre for Women’s Cancers, a revolutionary new partnership between Women’s College Hospital (WCH) in Toronto and the Canadian Cancer Society (CCS).

The vision of the centre – which was launched in February, 2017, and is located within WCH – is “to ensure that every Canadian woman receives access to the highest standard of care in the prevention, diagnosis, treatment and survivorship of cancer.” This national initiative was made possible thanks to a joint $12-million donation from philanthropist Peter Gilgan and the Canadian Cancer Society.

“The Gilgan family is extremely supportive of health-system change, and they’re phenomenally visionary in knowing that the future of medicine lies beyond the walls of a hospital,” says Dr. Ruth Heisey, who is the centre’s medical director as well as chief of WCH’s department of family and community medicine. “I don’t know of any other situation where you have a private donor and a leading not-for-profit cancer organization partnering with a hospital for research and clinical excellence.”

This noteworthy joint endeavour was established in the face of troubling trends. According to a 2017 CCS report, one in two Canadians will be diagnosed with cancer. The rate of diagnosis is on the rise among women while remaining stable for men. In fact, the American Cancer Society predicts that the number of women dying of cancer worldwide will increase 60 per cent by 2030.

“One of the challenges we see is that women care for everyone else before [caring for] themselves. We need to help women put themselves first,” notes Dr. Heisey.

“We need to help women pay attention to their symptoms and their family histories. And we’ve also got women who are marginalized, who are traumatized; women who don’t feel comfortable coming to health-care centres for various reasons. We need to reach out to all women and help them help themselves.”

To connect with all those women, CCS and Women’s College Hospital decided to combine their specializations.

The hospital is a leader in research, diagnosis and care for women’s cancers, while CCS is a powerful community-based organization with a vast national network. Together, the two organizations can provide women and health-care providers with reliable, tested and cutting-edge information, resources and models of care from coast to coast to coast.

“Education for both patients and health-care providers is a central focus of the new centre,” says Elaine Goulbourne, who is the centre’s administrative director and head of clinical resources and performance at the hospital. “We want to teach women nationwide to understand their risk factors and how to access resources, so they are able to be active partners in their care, while at the same time equipping clinicians with the tools they need to effectively guide their patients through what can be a difficult journey.”

Illustrating Goulbourne’s point is an extensive plan at The Peter Gilgan Centre for Women’s Cancers to leverage and build upon the groundbreaking cancer research taking place at WCH through its research institute, which is producing findings such as how cancer-risk factors affect women and men differently (for example, women with diabetes have a higher risk of breast cancer and mortality). Any research-based treatment and prevention recommendations emerging from the centre will then be shared with health-care professionals, institutions and women across Canada via the CCS network.

“[Simply put], our vision is to create a world where no Canadian fears cancer, and so we believe this partnership is helping us tackle that,” explains Lynne Hudson, president and chief executive officer of CCS.

“We know that information and knowledge help women through prevention and through managing their treatments and post-treatment experience.”

Canadians already recognize CCS as a trusted and reliable source of information they can draw upon at every stage of their cancer diagnosis. The non-profit’s website is visited by more than 12 million people each year. Staff and volunteers also receive 50,000 calls and e-mails from people asking questions or needing help as they navigate the health-care system.

“We’ve also got things like peer support programs and online chat communities, so that women, no matter where they are, can get [help],” says Hudson. “And if our volunteers and staff are trained and equipped with all that Women’s College is going to produce, you can imagine that’s best-in-class support.”

The centre plans to expand that network even further through innovation in cancer care. Virtual tools, for instance, can help women and their families who live in rural communities reach their health teams from home after surgery. It also hopes to launch an online counselling tool to provide women with mental-health support as they face their diagnosis and treatment.

Marilyn Emery, president and CEO of Women’s College Hospital, says that a shared commitment to creating equitable access to care was the driving force behind the centre’slaunch. “Women’s College Hospital and the Canadian Cancer Society were both founded with a vision to ensure Canadians get the care and resources that they need and deserve,” she says.

“From closing the gaps that exist in healthcare for women, to delivering treatments that improve the lives of people living with cancer, we’re thrilled to now have an opportunity to combine our expertise and shared values to expand our reach across Canada. The Peter Gilgan Centre for Women’s Cancers is an extraordinary example of the power of partnership to save lives.”