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Reaching out to Diverse Communities


Early on Cancer Care Nova Scotia (CCNS) realized that it needed different strategies and ways to reach out and address access issues and cancer prevention education for diverse communites. Enter Donna Smith, CCNS’s Diverse Communities Cancer Coordinator.

DSmithIn this role, Donna has worked to address identified needs in a culturally specific way and also to develop cultural competencies within health professionals. Donna works with African Nova Scotian, First Nations, Immigrant and other communities to develop programs, polices and approaches to help them understand how to prevent cancer, their risk for cancer and how to get access to cancer care when needed.

Cancer Care Nova Scotia’s approach has been about building capacity so that people have the support they need in their own communities,” says Donna, a registered nurse. “Initially, that was a daunting challenge, but from my very first community meeting, communities were receptive and we have met the challenge together.”

One successful program in the Aftican Nova Scotian community was the development of lay educaotrs. Donna worked with government departments and community agencies focused on healthy lifestyle and public policy to develop and deliver a lay educator program to support this community in providing important health information. As a result, people in African Nova Scotian communities across the province are educating their neighbours and friends about prevention and early detection of breast and cervical cancer. The lay educator program enables the delivery of important health information in this community by people who are known and trusted. This is a tremendous benefit for communities that are small and often located in isolated areas of the province.

“There are a lot of misperceptions around the word ‘health’ for diverse communities -- especially around the word ‘cancer,’” says Donna. “Facing the health care system is intimidating, considering that many live with systemic racism. This has resulted in a mistrust of health professionals and the health system.”

While there are similarities among diverse communities, each also have unique needs. In the Immigrant community, Donna and CCNS colleagues worked with community health partners to develop a well woman’s clinic to meet the cultural needs of Arabic speaking women of the Muslim Faith. In the First Nations community, Donna worked with the Tui’kn partnership (five First Nations communities in Cape Breton) to adapt cancer education material specific to their culture.

Through her unique role with Cancer Care Nova Scotia, Donna also contributed to the Department of Health and Wellness’s development of Cultural Competence Guidelines for the Delivery of Primary Health Care. “Now,” she notes, “we have provincial diversity and social inclusion guidelines for all district health authorities.”

Donna and her work in reaching out to the African Nova Scotia community was recently honoured with the Dr. W.P. Oliver Award. Dr. Oliver was an African Nova Scotian community worker and minister.

The award is presented each year by the Black Cultural Society of Nova Scotia in recognition of one of its founding members. The award recognizes outstanding contributions by leaders in the province’s Black community.

For Donna, the nomination – and the award – was humbling. “Dr. Oliver was a leader. He had wisdom and compassion. He was a defender of equality. To have my work recognized in this way is very meaningful. I feel like ‘wow!’”

It is Donna who has wowed colleagues and communities alike with her commitment and her consideration for others.

A decade after beginning her work with diverse communities, it is time to return to the beginning and assess the impact the program has had. “We are going back to the communities we visited originally to see if there has been any improvement in access and education,” Donna explains.

Donna says that her job has taught her as much as she has taught others. “I’ve learned patience, and I’ve learned you need to build trust. People need to see you are genuine.”

In Donna, communities also see something else: insight from someone who has experienced cancer firsthand. It’s been 18 years since she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

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