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Reframing cancer into something bearable

Dr Rob Rutledge








L-R: Carol-Anne Davis, Radiation Therapist; Rob Rutledge, Radiation Oncologist; and Marsha Avery, Registered Nurse

Dr. Rob Rutledge, a Radiation Oncologist with the Capital Health Cancer Care Program, doesn’t just listen to his patients. He hears them.

“The most important aspect of care is showing compassion,” says Dr. Rutledge, who was awarded the 2010 CCNS Excellence in Patient Care Award. “People want to feel understood. We need to really listen and to acknowledge patients’ feelings. We need to reassure them that those feelings are normal.”

Listening is the first step on the road to empowerment. “The idea is to take people to a different level, to empower them and help them find meaning and purpose,” explains Dr. Rutledge.

“The cancer,” he notes, “becomes an opportunity to look at one’s life and priorities and to choose to live with compassion.”

That shift in perspective is life altering for many people. One patient of Rob’s, as he likes to be called, wrote that, “Cancer as a disease carries an unbelievable burden of doom with it, despite how much greater survival rates are, and it is this doom that Rob enables patients to face – and reframe – into something bearable and very ‘carry-able.’”

He does that in many ways. Another former patient notes that, “Outside Dr. Rutledge’s day job and on his own time, his weekend retreat workshops for cancer patients and families have helped more than 1,000 people face and reframe their cancer experience. He has also developed a Skills for Wellness program for health care providers to empower colleagues to extend the reach and impact of their work.”

This approach has evolved into the Healing and Cancer Foundation, a charitable organization co-founded in 2007 by Dr. Rutledge and Dr. Timothy Walker, a clinical psychologist and stress reduction specialist. The Foundation helps people affected by cancer with a practical, integrated approach to their diagnosis. 

“We offer life skills training and a unique perspective on mind, body and spirit that can transform the experience of illness into one of wholeness,” says Dr. Rutledge, who is also an associate professor in the Faculty of Medicine at Dalhousie University. 

“I offer a smorgasbord of ideas,” he notes. “People can taste for themselves.”

Many items on the menu will come as no surprise. Exercise, for example, tops the list. Diet is a close second, followed by relaxation. “We can actually settle our minds and our bodies. And this can help us tolerate treatments better,” says Dr. Rutledge, who has recently co-authored a book, The Healing Circle, that explores the question “How can you heal after a cancer diagnosis?'

The answer to that question, says Dr. Rutledge, began over two decades ago with his need to understand more about cancer, its causes, prevention and treatment. Then, with the help of organizations like Cancer Care Nova Scotia and the Canadian Cancer Society, the focus broadened from sheer science to include health promotion and the patient’s perspective.

Now, he notes, we are moving to the next level. “We are looking at meaning, at purpose. This is where healing and cancer can bring people together.”


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