True Calling: Nancy Guebert

As the chief program officer for CancerControl Alberta, Nancy Guebert is committed to making every patient’s cancer journey a little easier

Photography by Jared Sych

Even when she was a newly graduated nurse working at Royal University Hospital in Saskatoon, Nancy Guebert always felt it was essential to put patients and their families first. She sees each patient with cancer as a unique individual on a personal journey.

“You have to treat each patient and family individually, and I always say, ‘There’s always a story behind that patient, there’s always a story behind that family,’” she says.

“We can be empathetic and try to be understanding but we truly will not experience what that patient is going through,” she says.

On June 12, 2017, Guebert was permanently appointed to the role of chief program officer for CancerControl Alberta. Under Alberta Health Services, CancerControl is responsible, in collaboration with its partners, to support the implementation of Changing our Future: Alberta’s Cancer Plan to 2030. CancerControl is responsible for the provision of comprehensive care at the tertiary, regional and community cancer centres, operational responsibility for cancer surveillance and registration and supporting cancer research across many parts of the cancer continuum. Guebert has filled the post, on an interim basis, since November 2015 and works in a dyad role with Dr. Matthew Parliament, interim senior medical director, CancerControl Alberta, and medical director at the Cross Cancer Institute in Edmonton.

“[Nancy] still walks the talk of her days as a clinical nurse, and she does not forget that the front lines is where the care really happens. She is also incredibly enthusiastic and optimistic — invaluable traits in a challenging portfolio like cancer.” — Dr. Matthew Parliament, interim senior medical director, CancerControl Alberta, and medical director at the Cross Cancer Institute in Edmonton

As chief program officer, Guebert is responsible for the delivery of cancer services in the province of Alberta. Specifically, she’s in charge of the administrative side of cancer operations under Alberta Health Services while Parliament oversees the medical side of the delivery of cancer services. She wears many hats in her current role and brings a wealth of valuable experience from her previous roles.

“I get to do a bit of everything. I do some administration. I get to do teaching, I can support research,” she says. “It’s kind of the best of all worlds.”

Guebert says she finds motivation in many aspects of her job, including the team she works alongside, the exciting developments in cancer care and the fact that she is part of a learning organization, helping to train the next generation of researchers and clinicians working in cancer care. “To me, it’s not a job,” she says.

Raised on a farm in Birch Hills, Saskatchewan, Guebert completed both her Bachelor of Nursing and a Master’s in Continuing Education at the University of Saskatchewan.

She had always planned on a career in music, before eventually deciding to focus on nursing professionally. But Guebert still counts music as a hobby and finds time to sing, play piano and write music.

Looking back, perhaps her foray into health care was inevitable. She grew up surrounded by a family of health-care workers, including many physicians and nurses, including her mother who was a nurse. “I’ve been surrounded by such wonderful people and wonderful teachers and wonderful mentors,” Guebert says of her family.

Prior to moving from Saskatchewan to Alberta in 2001, Guebert spent many years working in cancer care and palliative care. She’s held several prominent leadership roles in the past, including president of the Canadian Association of Nurses of Oncology, a position that allowed her to network with cancer nurses provincially, nationally and internationally.

Guebert is also a surveyor with Accreditation Canada. Guebert surveys health organizations within Canada, including cancer programs and health systems, and has also surveyed several international cancer programs. This is not officially a part of her role with AHS, but Guebert says the province supports her role as a surveyor and sees it as positive because it exposes her to other health systems. Guebert says there are specific standards and criteria that cancer programs are measured against. As a surveyor, she evaluates many aspects of cancer programs, including the approach to patient- and family-centred care, quality and safety improvement initiatives and infection prevention and control. “[She] knows that we need to get the basics right to have any hope of moving forward as a high-performing program,” says Parliament, adding that Guebert is a very respected and experienced leader.

“I think part of her success does relate to having worked in a number of diverse portfolios over time, and having had to overcome obstacles to good patient- and family-focused care as an operational leader,” he says.

“But if you drill right down I think it’s also because she still walks the talk of her days as a clinical nurse, and she does not forget that the front lines is where the care really happens. She is also incredibly enthusiastic and optimistic — invaluable traits in a challenging portfolio like cancer,” Parliament says.

Janice Stewart, senior operating officer for Peter Lougheed Centre, Southern Alberta Renal Program and Southern Alberta Transplant Program, has known Guebert for 14 years and considers her both a mentor and valued colleague.

“Nancy appreciates the contributions of the whole team and she is able to make sincere connections with staff and physicians at all levels within the organization. She has a phenomenal ability to remember people’s names and to put people at ease, which goes a long way when dealing with challenging situations,” Stewart says.

Guebert, she says, also brings impressive business skills to her current role.

“She is a strategic, systems thinker and understands system integration and the value of the patient’s perspective in their health-care journey, “ Stewart says.

Guebert also believes it’s important to personally support the Alberta Cancer Foundation, the philanthropic engine for CancerControl Alberta. On June 24 she participated in the organization’s OneWalk to Conquer Cancer as well as raising funds. The event, she says, helps recognize and acknowledge the journey of cancer patients “and to acknowledge some of those whose journey has ended.”

At CancerControl Alberta, Guebert works in partnership and collaboration with other agencies to support the cancer care continuum, which includes everything from prevention and screening to palliative and end-of-life care. “The fact is, we’ve got a focused mission and a vision, we’ve got a focused task at hand and that’s what keeps us going each and every day,” Guebert says.

With an increase in the demand for services province-wide, the role does come with some challenges, including a five- to seven-per cent growth in demand for services each year. “I never look at the challenges, I like to think of it as opportunities,” Guebert says.

“The good news is, people are surviving,” she adds. “We have more technologies and more treatments available for patients and because of that our demand for services will increase,” she explains. CancerControl Alberta, she says, is always exploring innovative ways to deliver cancer care.

“I think the other opportunity is how we can continue to provide care closer to home, so ensuring that we are fully using all of our capacity within the program, whether it’s the regional cancer centres in Medicine Hat, Lethbridge, Red Deer, Grand Prairie or our 11 community cancer centres,” she says.

In Calgary, the future of cancer care will be further supported by the new Calgary Cancer Centre, which is expected to open in 2023 and will eventually house the outpatient cancer services presently located at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre and the Holy Cross site, as well as Oncology Inpatient beds at the Foothills Medical Centre.

Asked about the future of cancer care in this province, Guebert says it’s important to keep an open mind to new research and innovation while continually working to tackle the incidents of cancer.

“We need to continue to have a strong agenda around health promotion and health prevention,” she says. This includes some pillars of prevention such as exercise, using sunscreen and covering up, not smoking, screening and following a healthy diet.

“[And] making sure we can keep up with the demand around what research tells us around treatment, whether it’s radiation or chemo,” says Guebert.

At the end of the day, Guebert’s philosophy today is similar to what it was back when she was a new nurse: to help support patients and families on their individual journey.

“Our goal is to make it as easy for them as possible. To support them. To accept them for who they are, where they are,” she says.

“I may not be able to take your cancer away, but I’m going to do whatever I can to make the steps in your journey as easy as possible.”

Nancy Guebert’s Career Highlights

  • Formerly the senior operating officer at the Rockyview General Hospital and Provincial Correctional Health Services
  • Served as the executive director of education and corporate affairs at Saskatchewan Cancer Agency in Saskatoon
  • Served as an advisory member to the ministers of health and justice for the government of Saskatchewan with regards to the legislation for Advanced Health Care Directives
  • 2010 recipient of the Nursing in Excellence in Administration award from the College and Association of Registered Nurses of Alberta
  • 2005 chair of the Canadian Hospice and Palliative Care National Conference
  • Operationalized the first palliative care unit in Saskatoon
  • Holds a bachelor of nursing and a master’s of continuing education from the University of Saskatchewan

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