The Cross Cancer Institute is known for the exceptional and compassionate care given to each patient. The work put in by the volunteers at the Cross Cancer Institute does not go unnoticed by the patients and family members they interact with daily. Today, we say thank you for the positive and warm environment these volunteers continuously provide to every person who walks through the doors of this world-class institute.

Jenna and Susan tell us what inspired them to start volunteering, what the Cross Cancer Institute means to the Edmonton community, and what the We Cross Cancer campaign means to them.

Jenna Evanchuk

Jenna Evanchuk is a 2nd year MSc student at the University of Alberta, specializing in Nutrition and Metabolism. She is also a dedicated volunteer at the Cross Cancer Institute.

“Volunteering is a huge part of my life,” Jenna expresses.

When not in her lab or reading papers – or volunteering at the Cross – Jenna is eating and cooking. “I’m a huge foodie,” she confesses. Some of her other hobbies include long distance running, knitting, and crocheting.

Jenna has been volunteering at the Cross Cancer Institute since before the Covid-19 pandemic. Her role back then was called Friendly Visiting, which entailed visiting patients the in-patient units and conversing with them, or bringing them snacks and drinks. Unfortunately due to the pandemic, the program has been halted, as the patients are immunocompromised and at high risk.

Jenna is now at the wig salon, shaving patients’ heads and fitting them to wigs. She explains that she and the other volunteers try to find the best wig that the patients are happy with. “It’s kind of like trying on clothes,” she remarks.

Jenna’s enthusiasm for volunteering also shows through her Alberta Health Services Volunteer Orientation Facilitator role, where she provides orientation sessions to new volunteers.

“As volunteers, we have the gift of time,” Jenna muses.

Amongst many memorable moments, one of Jenna’s favourite parts of volunteering at the Cross is finding the perfect wig for patients. “Hair loss is devastating for some patients, but if they can find that perfect wig, and the moment they put that wig on… there’s really no way to describe it.”

Jenna also enjoys being a conversation partner to the patients and speaking to them about non-cancer topics – their families, home lives, and where they come from.

“There’s lots of moments of joy in volunteering,” Jenna muses. “The interactions may seem small scale but I know they mean the world to the patients and their families.”

One of the main reasons that Jenna began volunteering at the Cross Cancer Institute was due to her family’s history of cancer, including her grandparents and great-aunt. Jenna explains that the Cross brought comfort, understanding, and clarity to the situation, and that she wanted to give back to them.

In terms of medical and cancer research, Jenna states: “As a researcher and volunteer in the medical sector [in Alberta], I’m really proud of the life-changing research in healthcare that is being delivered through truly world-class institutions, like the Cross Cancer, around the province.”

Having lived in the province her whole life, Jenna believes that overall, Alberta has a great quality of life. “I love Alberta and being here.”

Jenna is also enthusiastic about the We Cross Cancer Campaign. “I think it’s really incredible and it just makes me really happy that it’s front of mind continuously,” she reflects. “The funding will impact lives not only in this generation, but also many generations to come, because we continue to fight cancer.”

 

From family experience with cancer as well as volunteer experience at the Cross Cancer Institute, Jenna has some wisdom about cancer to share: “Cancer doesn’t discriminate. It can affect anyone, anytime, at any life stage… Cancer is different in every single person.”

“While there’s great advancements in research,” Jenna reflects, “I do think that it will be a fight for a long time. I think this [We Cross Cancer Campaign] money means everything to improve care.”

 

Susan Jensen

Susan Jensen is a retired Microbiology professor from the University of Alberta, and was born and raised in Edmonton. She is also a long-time volunteer at the Cross Cancer Institute.

Susan’s role as a volunteer is at the Patient and Family Resource Center. As their motto, “care and comfort” suggests, Susan provides all of the non-medical aspects of the treatments of cancer.

“The Cross as a treatment hospital is so streamlined and efficient to treat the maximum number of patients that sometimes the softer side gets lost,” Susan observes.

Thanks to her role, Susan is able to provide this softer side, including accommodation for patients coming from out of town; ride services to the hospital; and pamphlets about the different types of cancer, their respective treatments, and the side effects.

Susan also enjoys the opportunity to speak with people from all over Alberta, and even outside of the province, such as the Northwest Territories. “[I enjoy] just hearing their story and doing what we can to help them,” she says.

Susan began volunteering at the Cross Cancer Institute eight years ago, in 2014, and remarks that the institute was a big and impressive part of the community. Thanks to her background in microbiology, Susan had some prior understanding of cancer, as well as some overlap from speakers and sessions during her time at the U of A.

Susan speaks positively about her experience volunteering at the Cross, and thinks fondly about seeing how grateful the patients and families are for the institute’s help. “It’s really wonderful,” she says.

Susan also commends the Cross Cancer staff. “I’m so impressed – they really go out of their way to help the patients,” she expresses. “It’s been a really rewarding experience working there.”

Susan is also grateful to the Alberta Heritage Foundation for providing medical research. “I’m very impressed and proud of the whole medical community in Alberta,” she states. “I think we have an excellent cancer hospital, [and] excellent researchers.”

In regards to the We Cross Cancer Campaign, Susan wishes them success in their campaign, as cancer research, treatment, and facilities require constant funding.

“There’s certainly an ongoing and ever-increasing need for research in cancer,” Susan comments. She also notes the importance of clinical trials and their heavy costs: “Those can be horrendously expensive if they’re not supported.”

“Any source of funding for cancer research is all welcome,” Susan remarks.

 

Learn about how you can volunteer with the Cross Cancer Institute here. 

In January of 2017, Donato Bernardo thought he was coming down with the flu. As an automotive mechanic, he was in the shop finishing his last few days of rotations. He was determined to keep working, but his foreman convinced him to go to the doctor. Donato, who was 27 at the time, was diagnosed with leukemia within the month, and he spent the next four years in and out of the Cross Cancer Institute. It was soon discovered that Donato also had spinal cancer and he began a series of chemotherapy treatments and spinal taps. He walked through the stages of remission and relapse, and, in early 2020, Donato was told he was out of options. However, that same year, he was given new hope when he learned he was eligible to enter a clinical trial. The Chimeric Antigen Receptor T-cell therapy, known as CAR T-cell therapy, uses a patient’s immune system to battle cancer cells. Today, Donato is in remission. He shares his story here:

“When I first arrived at [Edmonton’s] Northeast Medical Centre [in 2017], I was asleep for three or four days. When I woke up, I had my doctor and my parents there. They told me I was short of blood. EMS transferred me to the University of Alberta with my parents in tow. They immediately put me in isolation, and I remember watching the doctor running toward me with a bag of blood and I thought, ‘I don’t think this is the flu anymore.’

“They did a spinal tap and, on Feb. 5, three or four doctors came into my room and told me I had leukemia. My doctor came in and gave me my options for chemotherapy and I looked at her and I said, ‘We can start now.’

“After that, I was there for about seven months.

 

“Since then, I’ve had at least 100 spinal taps. Leukemia usually gets diagnosed in adolescence, so, being an adult, it’s harder to control. They did everything they could — they ran me through so many protocols and immunotherapy and radiation. They told me I was out of options.

“But, in 2020, my doctor sat me down, looked me straight in the face and asked if I would be willing to partake in what’s called the CAR T transplant. At that point, saying no would be ridiculous. So, I just went for it. And, for me, it was a second chance again.

“I was deemed terminal before this, and this was a Hail Mary — and it worked. I want CAR T to eventually retire chemotherapy. Chemotherapy did a lot to my body and my life, and I lost time. I’m hoping CAR T becomes a protocol as a baseline. I have a lot to catch up on in my life. I have a lot of hope.”

 

Originally posted on the Alberta Cancer Foundation website.

Learn more about CAR T-Cell Therapy here.

EDMONTON – Clinical trials for “Made-in-Alberta” Chimeric Antigen Receptor (CAR) T-cell therapy are showing very promising results for some patients where chemotherapy and radiation have stopped working.

Last fall, Don Goss suffered a relapse seven weeks after finishing two years of traditional chemotherapy for acute lymphoblastic leukemia. At the time, he made the difficult decision to go into hospice care as he didn’t feel he could withstand more chemotherapy.

“That very same day, I was offered the chance to enter the new CAR-T trial,” says Goss. “This new, revolutionary treatment has saved my life. I am now three months and counting since I had it and am cancer-free, without suffering the considerable side effects of chemo.”

Chimeric Antigen Receptor (CAR) T-cell therapy genetically reprograms a person’s immune cells to attack cancer cells in the body. A patient’s T-cells are extracted and, in a laboratory, they are genetically modified and multiplied before being returned to the patient.

 

Most patients receive only one infusion as these cells continue to multiply and fight cancer cells. This therapy is used to treat children and adults with specific types of leukemia and lymphoma for whom chemotherapy and radiation therapy treatment have stopped working.

The clinical trials at the Cross Cancer Institute will soon be expanding to the Tom Baker Cancer Centre and use CAR T-cell therapy developed by AHS in collaboration with the University of Alberta. Approximately 80 per cent of patients in these trials have seen their cancers significantly diminish or are in long-term remission after CAR T-cell therapy.

“Providing Albertans convenient and swift treatment at home with a Made-in-Alberta solution is a step in the right direction,” says Jason Copping, Minister of Health. “CAR T-cell therapy could be a game-changer as we are seeing some remarkable results. Because of the Alberta Cellular Therapy Program grant through Alberta’s government, clinical trials, like CAR-T therapy, can provide hope for Albertans when they need it the most.

The first patients began treatment in the clinical trials in March 2021. The trials were established by Alberta Health Services and funded through a $10-million investment from the Government of Alberta and a $5-million grant from the Alberta Cancer Foundation. CAR-T therapy is also offered using a commercially available product. To date, 18 patients have been treated using these products at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre in Calgary.

 

“Leading the Made-in-Alberta trial is an exciting opportunity to bring additional cell therapy options to Albertans,” says medical oncologist Dr. Michael Chu, lead of the clinical trials that are based at the Cross Cancer Institute. “We have successfully treated 10 patients to date and are seeing long-term remission in some, suggesting that we may have cured them of their cancer after all other treatments have failed.”

The Made-in-Alberta clinical trials will expand to Calgary by the end of summer.

 

This investment has also allowed AHS to deliver standard of care CAR-T therapy to 18 patients at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre using commercially developed products, and this fall, will expand to offer it at the Cross Cancer Centre Institute.

Clinical trials are studies that test the safety and effectiveness of new drugs or procedures. Patients volunteer to participate in these studies, and medical professionals gain valuable information from the results. Clinical trials are one of the best ways to test new methods to diagnose, treat, manage and prevent cancer.

Alberta Health Services is the provincial health authority responsible for planning and delivering health supports and services for more than four million adults and children living in Alberta. Its mission is to provide a patient-focused, quality health system that is accessible and sustainable for all Albertans.

Originally posted on the Alberta Health Services Website.