Treating Cancer in the North

Trent Ernst, Editor

In November of last year, the BC Cancer Centre for the North opened, bringing treatment—previously unavailable this side of the Okanagan—to the north. It is the sixth full service cancer centre in the province to open. It is operated by the BC Cancer Agency.

The new centre is located adjacent to the University Hospital of Northern BC (formerly Prince George Regional Hospital) in Prince George.

Dr. Robert Olson was the first physician to be hired for the Centre for the North. He completed his Radiation Oncology training at the BC Cancer Agency through the University of British Columbia. In addition, he holds a Masters of Science degree in epidemiology from Harvard University.

Dr Olson grew up in Lloydminster. He moved to Calgary where he studied before moving on to Vancouver and then Boston. He started making trips up to this area in 2010. While most of his time was spent in Prince George, he made trips out to the smaller hospitals like Dawson Creek and Fort St. John.

He was offered position with Northern Medical Program at UNBC , where he does some teaching but spends most of his time doing research. “Growing up in small town, I wanted that lifestyle for my family,” says Doctor Olson.

More importantly, says Olson, it is a chance to do research in an area where there has been little to none done before. “As far as I can tell, there were no clinical trials happening before in the north,” says Olson. “Now there is. And I’m hoping it will change the culture of the north.”

While his research is varied, Olson says that it centres around how cancer is treated in rural areas. “We have shown that for Breast Cancer patients, they were more likely to get mastectomies if they lived in remote northern communities,” says Olson. The farther away from a major cancer treatment facility people are, the higher the rates of invasive surgery and even full mastectomies were.

His research also showed that women were less likely to have mammograms, which are readily available across the north.

In the half a year since the Centre for the North started, Olson says that it seems more women are choosing to get radiation treatment, though he cautions that this is only anecdotal, and will need further research.

Olson says that the big-city model doesn’t work in the north, where people who are diagnosed with cancer have to go in for a meeting, then go back a few weeks later for a test, then go in later for a consultation. He says he’s blessed with the fact that the new Centre for the North is right next to the hospital in Prince George. “It’s a luxury being right next to them,” says Olson. “People elsewhere in the province envy us. We have a great relationship with Northern Health. And because there are way fewer players, it means that you get to know people. It’s very common that a radiologist from the hospital will walk over and see me, or I can walk over and see the patient in emergency. Because there are fewer of us, they get to know us. In Vancouver, there were 20 Radiation Oncologists, here there are far fewer. So it’s not uncommon that doctors will just call me.”

While Olson’s work is research driven, it is also very patient focused. As part of that, he is also looking at how patients make their way through the system, and the communication between family doctors and specialists. “I think the north will lead the province in communication between doctors,” he says.

While there has been chemotherapy offered in the north, as well as surgical solutions, Olson says that the big addition that the Centre for the North brings to patient treatment is radiotherapy. “Radiation is very common for treating cancer,” he says. “Over 60% of all cancers are treated with it. It was a huge unmet need.”

Unlike smaller cancer clinics in other provinces that focus on treating the most common types of cancer, Olson says that the Centre for the North is a full-service clinic. “It’s quite rare to have something we can’t deal with,” he says. “Pediatric cancer is still treated at Children’s Hospital in Vancouver. There are some uncommon types of radiation treatments we can’t do here, and we can’t do bone marrow transplants. But those account for less than five percent of cancer treatments.”

Not everything will be done out of the Centre for the North. There are still ten hospitals across the north that offer chemotherapy to patients, but it will become ground zero for cancer treatment in the north. Northerners, says Olson, no longer have to travel to Vancouver, which is huge. “Before moving up here, I used to treat people from the north down in Vancouver. People had to go down there, which would cost them thousands of dollars. They’d have to stay away from family for eight weeks as they received radiation treatment. Now they can stay at home. One third of the people in the north live in Prince George, but even people who come in from out of town can still go home for weekends.”

Is there a difference between the north and south? Yes, says Olson. “It has been released that there are some higher incidences of certain types cancer. It’s mostly lifestyle, and we need to change that. That’s a Northern Health strategy. Another pattern you see up north is that family doctors are much more involved in care. Down south, it’s driven by specialist. Here, the family doctors want to stay involved. That’s a pleasant surprise.”