Nova Scotia

No cancer navigator on South Shore means some patients are on their own

The provincially funded navigator for Lunenburg and Queens counties moved to a new position in October, and nobody has filled her place.

Nova Scotia Health Authority says it's working to fill the position that was vacated in October

Jennifer Harrison is a visual artist in Lunenburg, N.S., who was diagnosed with breast cancer this past summer. (Jennifer Harrison/Go Fund Me)

Without a cancer navigator in her area, Lunenburg, N.S., resident Jennifer Harrison is on her own to manage her many doctors appointments and medications, all while figuring out how she's going to pay her bills while off work. 

The provincially funded navigator for Lunenburg and Queens counties moved to a new position in October and nobody has taken her place. While the Nova Scotia Health Authority says it's actively recruiting, for now, Harrison is finding an already complicated health-care system even more opaque. 

"When things come up, not knowing which numbers to call, trying to find information on the internet and trying to co-ordinate all the information between various doctors and nurses, it's just been a little bit extra of a challenge," Harrison told CBC's Information Morning.

Someone to listen

Harrison, a visual artist whose work has been featured on Lunenburg's visitors guide, was diagnosed with breast cancer this past summer.

Since then, she's relied on the cancer navigator to apply for financial assistance and co-ordinate with the many oncology doctors, nurses and surgeons.

The navigators have three main roles, according to the health authority, including patient and family education, symptom management and supportive care and co-ordination of care.

Harrison said she saw the cancer navigator once every three weeks at her chemotherapy appointments, and called her at least weekly. 

Jennifer Harrison's artwork was featured in the Lunenburg guidebook. Her friends have set up a Go Fund Me fundraiser to help cover some of her costs. (Jennifer Harrison/ Facebook)

She was someone who knew the system inside out, but also someone who listened. 

"It's crappy. It's a really horrible process, and just knowing that there's someone there who would put up with you going on about it in between actual concrete issues was a really good thing to have," she said.

It was Harrison's understanding that the position was a three-month contract. 

Looking for specialized nurse 

But Rob Zwicker, health services director for oncology for southwestern Nova Scotia, said it's a full-time position that they're working hard to fill.

"We needed it yesterday, and I'd like to say tomorrow but you know, there's no guarantee there," said Zwicker. 

He said the specialized position requires years of experience in oncology.

We needed it yesterday, and I'd like to say tomorrow but you know, there's no guarantee there.- Rob Zwicker , health services director

According to its website, Cancer Care Nova Scotia has nine cancer navigator positions in rural areas of the province. 

They were created so people who aren't able to easily access the Nova Scotia Cancer Clinic at the Queen Elizabeth II Health Sciences Centre in Halifax could get the help they need beyond what a doctor provides.

That's why there's no single cancer navigator for the Halifax region, which already has several people who do the work, said a spokesperson for the health authority. 

Not the only one

While the search for a replacement continues, Zwicker said nurses and managers will help patients with any questions they might have.

"The manager, and myself, we understand the emotional support that families and patients need, but we're committed to making sure that we can help bridge that gap until we do recruit into this full-time position," he said. 

There's no cancer navigator in the Halifax region because the work is done by several people who work out of the IWK and the Nova Scotia Cancer Care Program at the QEII. (Nova Scotia Health Authority/ Cancer Care Nova Scotia)

But Harrison said when she called nurses this week looking for her oncologist's number, she worried she was bugging people who are already incredibly busy providing care to cancer patients. 

"There's some people who are in a much harder position than I am who probably need a lot more help that can't be doing very well without someone in that role," said Harrison. 

About the Author

Emma Smith

Reporter

Emma Smith is a journalist from B.C. who has covered rural issues and Indigenous communities. Before joining CBC Nova Scotia in 2017, she worked as the editor of a community newspaper. Have a story idea to send her way? Email emma.smith@cbc.ca