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Cancer care pioneer – speaking openly about tough issues

J HamiltonUnderstanding illness is never easy, but it can be particularly difficult when you are young and the person who is ill is a parent. Joan Hamilton has been helping families address this challenge for 20 years. She was presented with the inaugural CCNS Pioneer Excellence Award on June 23rd in recognition of her work.

“The vast majority of parents want to talk to their kids about their cancer illness, but many just don’t know how to approach it,” says Joan, Clinical Nurse Specialist at the Capital Health Cancer Care Program.

“Parents need help with the words and how to say things openly, honestly and at a level each child can understand,” she adds.

Joan helps parents, throughout Nova Scotia as well as in other provinces, to make those difficult discussions easier. In the early 1990s, in response to repeated requests from health providers and parents for assistance, Joan wrote When a Parent is Sick: Helping Parents Explain Serious Illness to Children, which is published by Pottersfield Press.

At that time, there were no practical guides for parents or health providers on this topic. In fact, there are still very few, notes Susan Stackhouse, an Associate Professor at Dalhousie University. “Joan’s book is only one of seven books recommended by the NYU Cancer Institute on this subject. It is groundbreaking work.”

Susan recently nominated Joan for the Pioneer Excellence Award, one of four awards created to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Cancer Care Nova Scotia. The awards were introduced to recognize and celebrate those who are making a difference in the lives of cancer patients and families.

“Joan truly is a leader in cancer care,” says Susan, who discovered Joan’s book – and subsequently met her – when Susan’s father was dying of cancer and she wanted to talk with her daughter about what was happening.

“For me as a mom, just having something to turn to empowered me,” says Susan. “Joan truly is a leader in cancer care. She is a catalyst for change; she has a legacy of accomplishments; and she is a mentor to many.”

For Joan, the inspiration – and the impetus – behind her work are the parents and their children. “It’s truly amazing how parents step up to the plate and will do what is best for their kids. They do what they need to do so that their children have the best chance for a healthy adjustment.”

Joan also helps individuals and couples address another critical issue: sexual health changes after a diagnosis of and treatment for cancer. “There are emotional issues; there are relationship issues; there are functional changes as a result of the disease or treatment. Often, there are a variety of different options and approaches that can be tried,” says Joan, who gets referrals and requests from other health professionals, patients and partners.

“Changes in sexual health are yet another loss to deal with,” she adds. “These changes can have a big impact on self-esteem and body image – and it can have huge implications for a couple. Patients and partners  are very open and ready to talk about sexual health changes when a health professional opens up the discussion and the patient gets the sense that the health professional is comfortable.”

Joan notes that this aspect of cancer care is advancing in our cancer care program.

Editor’s notes: Patients, their families and health professionals can speak with Joan by calling 902-473-5407.  Copies of When a Parent is Sick: Helping Parents Explain Serious Illness to Children are available in French and English from Capital Health or online at

CCNS also presented Excellence Awards in Leadership, Innovation and Patient Care during its 10th Anniversary Celebration. The Leadership Team of the Cape Breton District Health Authority was presented with the Leadership Excellence Award. Dr. Gerry Farrell, Medical Director of Palliative Care for the Pictou County Health Authority was presented with the Innovation Excellence Award and the Interdisciplinary Thyroid Clinic Team from Capital Health was presented with the Excellence in Patient Care Award. These award recipients will be featured in future newsletters.