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Researcher in Action: Meet the Rn Coordinators From the Atlantic Clinical Cancer Research Unit

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A critical part of cancer care is clinical trials. In fact, over the past four decades, all advances in cancer treatments have only been possible because of this important part of research.

Located at the QEII Health Sciences Centre’s Victoria General site, the Atlantic Clinical Cancer Research Unit (ACCRU) coordinates trials across all cancer specialties – medical, radiation, and surgical. Treatments that are now available as a result of these clinical trials are built on previous data to make sure the medicines are safe and effective.

We recently had the opportunity to speak with ACCRU’s RN Coordinators, who provide study-related care and act as the primary outpatient nurse for patients.

Victoria Roberts

The backstory: When I graduated from Nursing in 2017, I had no idea what direction my career should take. I started my career on the acute medical and oncology floor, and then transitioned to my current role at ACCRU. It is my interest in oncology care and the continuous developments in the field that push me to continue.

The work: Each day is a little different from the last. Each of us play similar roles, but we take leadership in coordinating different trials. We prepare by keeping up to date on the protocols, working with physicians to screen and enroll new patients, and plan their oncologic care. We’re always looking into future trials and familiarizing ourselves with them through collaboration with sponsors so that we can continue to treat patients with the highest quality of care possible.

We’re always present as a support for their ongoing care. Some days we’re busy seeing patients in clinic, and others we’re preparing them for their next treatments, and checking-in with them to see how they are doing.

The inspiration: My patients inspire me. Seeing the strength that these individuals hold even when being faced with such unfortunate circumstances is truly inspirational. I’ve learned so much about life from the most fragile, yet strongest people that I’ve ever encountered.

Coming into nursing, I will admit that I was quite narrow minded. I thought that I would thrive off “treating” and “making people all better.” I never really understood that doing those things does not mean curing an illness, but it encompasses the whole journey that these individuals go through (good and bad), and it’s such an honour to be part of this experience.

The importance of research: Research keeps us moving forward. The downfall to this field of nursing is that unfortunately not all treatments work. We see the happiest of the happy, and the saddest of the sad. The only way to move forward from the sadness that we witness from our patients is to continue to grow and incorporate the advancements in oncology care into our practice.

Jillian McCracken

The backstory: I previously graduated with a Bachelor of Arts from Mount Saint Vincent University and was going to pursue being a teacher. However, I was introduced into the world of healthcare due to personal and familial experiences and decided to enroll in nursing school.

I worked as an inpatient nurse on a radiation/gynecology/medical oncology floor for five years, but with changes to the floor and COVID, I decided I needed a change and wanted to diversify my nursing career. The position for a Research Nurse Coordinator was posted and interested me a lot, encompassing my passion for oncology, nursing, and teaching.

The work: I’m currently working on trials that involve a variety of cancers. My focus right now is on the GI (bile duct cancer) and a variety of breast cancer studies. Day to day, I’m seeing patients in the Nova Scotia Cancer Centre, screening patients for eligibility for enrolment in trials, coordinating patient care for those currently enrolled in clinical trials, and following up with patients and doctors for everyday questions and concerns.

The inspiration: Nursing appealed to me because I like being able to help patients. From the beginning of a diagnosis to end of life, there are so many ways to be impactful in a patient’s life. Even the simplest of things can make such a complex and emotional experience a little easier for a patient or their family.

It’s rewarding to teach patients about their diagnosis, help ease their minds, and offer new and potentially game changing clinical trial treatments that provide hope – where there might not have been any before. That is what inspires me – following these patients and seeing their success and how they navigate their journey.

The importance of research: Cancer is always evolving, and new treatment options are emerging that are more beneficial for patients and create better life expectancy and quality of life. This is where clinical trials and research plays such an important role. Research allows us to determine if new treatments are safe, and more effective and efficient for cancer patients.

Alison Avery

The backstory: I graduated from Dalhousie Nursing with a certificate in Oncology Nursing in 2010 and began my career on an oncology floor where I was able to care for a wide variety of cancer patients at different stages of treatment. I was particularly interested in patients receiving chemotherapy.

I was so excited the day I started a position on the Systemic Therapy unit at the VG. I spent five years administering chemotherapy and was thankful to be able to meet so many incredible and inspiring patients and families during their cancer journey. One thing that really stood out to me while working at that unit was the clinical trial aspect. It was very interesting to me to see the patients that would volunteer to be part of a clinical trial – not only to treat their own disease, but in hopes of helping others.

The work: I am fortunate to be involved in many different clinical trials, treating a variety of different cancer types. My personal area of interest is gynecological cancer treatment, and I hope we can open more trials for the patient population soon.

In this role, when a patient signs consent to participate in a clinical trial, I become their primary nurse. The day-to-day routine can change on a dime. Some days I am in clinic seeing patients prior to their systemic treatment. Other days are spent in the office, screening potential patients, or keeping on top of the mountain of paperwork.

The inspiration: I love what I do because it is never boring. I am part of advancing care research and get to see that in action. I have administered investigational drugs before they were even named. Now, those drugs are approved and given as part of standard of care practice. Seeing those advancements inspires me every day.

The importance of research: Research is vital in cancer care. Patients are living longer and having a better quality of life – thanks to research and advancement in their treatments. I am so excited to see where research will take cancer care in the future!

Donna Sutherland

The backstory: I have been a nurse for 29 years, with the last 17 years working in Oncology. I have given cancer treatments in both the adult and pediatric settings for solid tumor and hematological cancers.

My love for Oncology started at St. Martha’s Regional Hospital Cancer and Supportive Care outpatient unit, where I worked in the Oncology clinic as well administering a variety of cancer treatments. I moved to Halifax two years ago and started working at the Nova Scotia Cancer Centre in Medical Oncology as a Clinical Nurse Coordinator working with the oncologists and patients. And in August 2010, a position became available at the Atlantic Clinical Cancer Research Unit, and I started working there in October 2021 as a Research Nurse Coordinator.

The work:  I am working on clinical trials that encompass a variety of cancers. A typical day can entail seeing patients at the Cancer Centre, screening potential patients for eligibility and enrolment into trials, coordinating patient care for those currently enrolled in clinical trials, and training on new and upcoming trials.

The inspiration: I chose nursing as a profession because I wanted to help people in need. I came to love cancer care because you can develop a unique relationship with your patients that extends to their family and friends. You come to know most aspects of the patient’s life – their needs, dreams, fears.

Your relationship with your patient can start at diagnosis, cancer treatment and sometimes cure, which is amazing, but you can also follow them to end of life, which is heart wrenching. I’ve been able to watch through the years how much cancer care and treatments have evolved and I’m excited to now be a part of that process through clinical trials.

The importance of research: I think everyone’s ultimate want and goal is to some day find a cure. Research and clinical trials are a step in that direction. It can help develop safe and effective newer methods to prevent, detect, diagnose, and treat the collection of diseases that compass cancer.

Lorrie Yunace

The backstory: I have been an oncology nurse for all my career (30+ years). I was very fortunate to have some amazing mentors at the beginning of my career that fostered an interest and love for oncology nursing.

I initially worked on an inpatient unit, moved to the Cancer Centre in 1995, and came to research in 2009. It was cancer patients and their families that have kept me in oncology nursing - as well as the many great nurses that I have met throughout my career.

The work: I currently hold the position of Team Lead for our nursing group. Some of the responsibilities I fill in this role are acting as a liaison between clinic and our research team, assessment of new clinical trials, coordinating nursing assignments, and supporting nursing and other team members.

I am also responsible for my own assignment, which includes coordinating specific clinical trials, working with sponsors, and providing primary care for any patients on trials. My days are very busy trying to meet my professional obligations.

The inspiration: Oncology patients and their families inspire me every day. The strength and hope they display throughout their cancer journey bring such joy to my work.

The importance of research: I have been very fortunate to have witnessed the evolution of cancer treatment throughout the past 30 years. Many patients are being cured or living longer, with great quality of life.

In addition, I have been involved in research that has become the standard of care for treatment. I have seen firsthand how patients and families have benefitted from clinical trials. For many cancer patients, the clinical trial is the best treatment for them. Even right here in Nova Scotia, we have contributed to the research of improved cancer treatments. This is beyond exciting as a nurse to see this every day in my work. Nurses play a key role in advocating for research for their patients and their families.

Nova Scotia Health’s Clinical Trials Unit, as part of the Health Innovation Hub, is helping to fostering strong and coordinated research efforts, and contributing to the larger health ecosystem in Nova Scotia. Nova Scotia Health’s Innovation Hub leads research, innovation and discovery within Nova Scotia’s healthcare system to deliver high-impact solutions for patients and providers. Through strategic partnerships, Nova Scotia Health’s Innovation Hub is transforming health care through leading-edge research, the best available evidence, and innovative solutions.