By: Travis Klemp
Living outside major Alberta cities like Calgary and Edmonton is becoming less of an obstacle for cancer patients looking for precision diagnosis and care. Innovative approaches to individualized cancer treatment unique to each patient’s genetic makeup are being born from the sharing of expertise from large clinics in city centres to rural areas.
For example, a patient with prostate cancer interested in novel testing or alternative-care models in Lethbridge, Alta., can now more easily be connected with community liaisons from Calgary’s Tom Baker Cancer Centre. The patient will travel less and still receive the highest quality of care from their hometowns.
Dr. Steven Yip is a medical oncologist at the Tom Baker. He has had a passion and focus for rural health initiatives since he began studying medicine at the University of Alberta in 2008.
“When I initially came back to Alberta after my fellowship in B.C., I was supporting communities like Medicine Hat and virtually in Lethbridge,” says Yip. “Calgary is a centre of excellence in regards to cancer care…I have always had a lens to bring that to patients receiving care in [rural] community zones.”
This passion motivated Yip to take on the medical oncology lead of the Precision Oncology and Experimental Therapeutics group (POET), which was established in 2016 at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre. The research initiative is designed to examine and decode the genetic and molecular targets of each patient’s cancer, which personalizes and guides their cancer treatments to match what is occurring with a specific patient at a microscopic level. Partnerships between Alberta expert hubs, such as the Tom Baker, and rural communities through programs like POET are now making it possible for patients to access the same novel care in smaller centres as is offered in larger cities
Yip adds that the ability to connect with patients in rural communities via virtual infrastructure, which was developed throughout COVID-19, has continued to improve the standard of care for each individual patient.
As the medical oncology lead of POET, Yip’s priority has been to provide exceptional care to all patients throughout southern Alberta, including Calgary. Working alongside Dr. Dean Ruetherat at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre, Yip has created a cohort of ambassadors who can be tapped for community zones, offering patients expertise and information about research and precision-oncology opportunities that can be accessed locally, virtually and at the Tom Baker.
“If a colleague of mine in Medicine Hat or Lethbridge is interested in getting a patient on a clinical trial or they want to learn about genetic testing or precision oncology, they can contact our team and I can connect them with the appropriate ambassador,” says Yip.
Yip himself is the Genitourinary Tumour Group ambassador with the POET program, helping patients connect with treatment and research options that otherwise would be very difficult to access in rural zones.
This process of Albertans helping and serving all Albertans as opposed to only those in areas where the most recent and novel research and treatment is offered has been well received by those living with cancer throughout the province.
“It has very little cost with a great benefit,” says Yip. “Patients recognize we are advocating for that cutting-edge level of therapy and we are trying to think about their disease and the way we treat them with the very best medicine.”
Yip adds that it is not just the teams in Calgary and Edmonton responsible for this type of care. Without the collaboration and support of local medical oncologists in smaller communities, programs like POET would not exist. It is the partnership between communities and larger centres that allow for new ways of thinking about cancer treatments.
“Being able to bring a specific precision oncology perspective in urologic cancer and being able to be a lead in these areas allows me to advocate on behalf of the patient,” says Yip. “And, if I don’t have the specific expertise, I am able to put the patient in touch with someone who does.”