Edmonton

Alberta Health Services hires youth cancer support worker — a first for Western Canada

Alberta Health Services and the Alberta Cancer Foundation have hired Western Canada's first adolescent and young adult (AYA) patient navigator to work with young cancer patients.

'Some of the challenges young adults have are like fertility, education, finding a job'

From left to right, Jodie Jespersen is Alberta Health Services' new AYA patient navigator, with young cancer survivor Heidi Peters and oncologist Dr. Sarah McKillop. (Travis McEwan/CBC)

Alberta Health Services and the Alberta Cancer Foundation have hired Western Canada's first adolescent and young adult (AYA) patient navigator to work with young cancer patients.

Four years ago, Ricki-Lee Hildebrand, 22, was diagnosed with bone cancer in her knee.

She was 18 at the time and was trying to figure out how to deal with the diagnosis while planning to start university.

"How do I defer from university for a year? How is this going to affect me in the future?" Hildebrand asked. "Am I going to be able to have kids later?"

Hildebrand, whose cancer is now in remission, is one of nearly 300 young people aged 15-29 in Alberta who are diagnosed with cancer every year.

"To have one person who I could rely on to answer all these questions for me and support me through my journey into adulthood with cancer would have been just invaluable," she said.

Ricki-Lee Hildebrand shows a scar on her left knee, the result of surgery to remove a cancerous tumour. (Travis McEwan/CBC)

"Some of the challenges young adults have are like fertility, education, finding a job," said Sarah Millkop, a pediatric oncologist at Edmonton's Cross Cancer Institute.

"When you have cancer, all those things get impacted and maybe change forever," she said. "We may be able to navigate through that"

An AYA patient navigator has now been hired in Edmonton to help young cancer patients deal with the disease and with their development as a young adult.

Jodie Jespersen starts the job this week with a handful of patients aged 15 to 25.

"The fertility stuff is big for these young people because they have so much future ahead of them," Jespersen said.

Jodie Jespersen is Western Canada's first AYA patient navigator. (Travis McEwan/CBC)

"I'm just the start to the extra support that's going to be rolled out — because it's just so necessary to support these young people."

As the demand grows and funding increases, the age of patients could be increased from 25 to 29, she said.

@Travismcewancbc

​Travis.mcewan@cbc.ca