Helping Bring World-Class Cancer Care to Calgary

Heather Culbert is part of the grassroots effort that helped make the new Calgary Cancer Centre a reality

By: Sean P. Young

Photograph of Heather Culbert by Jamie Everhart.

When asked how it felt to witness Alberta Health Services receive the keys for the new $1.4-billion Calgary Cancer Centre, Heather Culbert’s response is immediate.

“The emotion is elation,” Culbert says. “It was like the phoenix rising from the ashes, seeing that building being built and the dedication of so many people who made this happen.”

Culbert’s drive to see this immense change for the face of cancer treatment and research in Calgary stretches back to 1986, when her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. She says she was not satisfied with the state of cancer care at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre, where her mother was receiving treatment at the time.

“I remember being very annoyed with the lack of resources that they had,” Culbert says. “You had so many passionate people working there trying to help, but their hands were tied relative to the space and the equipment they had to work with.”

Culbert’s mother would battle cancer for the next 25 years. During that time, Culbert had a very successful career in the oil and gas sector, retiring from her role as senior vice president of corporate services at Enerplus in 2006. Culbert says she was too young to retire in the traditional sense, so she took to philanthropy, serving as a trustee for the Alberta Cancer Foundation from 2010 to 2014.

It was here she encountered two galvanizing forces in her quest to see a new cancer centre in Calgary. The first was working with John Osler, a fellow Alberta Cancer Foundation board member, who quickly became a friend and confidant. The second was Culbert’s own breast cancer diagnosis in 2009. Culbert says she was incredibly thankful her cancer was caught before metastasizing, as she knew the treatment facilities were still not where they could be in Calgary.

The promise of a new cancer centre goes back to 2005, when the Government of Alberta committed $1 billion to build a new one in Calgary. The next decade was fraught with starts and stops, and when the province announced a revaluation of the project in 2015, Culbert and John Osler decided enough was enough.

“I remember having lunch with John, and they’d just announced for the third time since we’d been involved with the Alberta Cancer Foundation that it was cancelled again,” Culbert says.

“John and I are sitting there saying, ‘Well, someone has to do something about this.’ And I said, ‘Well, if not us, then who?’”

Ever since the Government of Alberta promised a new cancer centre in Calgary in 2005, Heather Culbert worked tirelessly to help make it a reality. Photograph by Jamie Everhart.

Culbert and Osler quickly organized C5, or Concerned Citizens for the Calgary Cancer Centre. They hired a PR firm out of their own pockets to guide them on the most efficient and respectful way to amplify C5’s rallying cry: “Build It Now.”

“We wanted to keep it in the media in a very respectful way. We didn’t want this to be an election issue. We would do a rally here and there, but our message was not angry. It was just trying to build support for this project,” Culbert recalls.

The Calgary Cancer Centre was resurrected for a fourth time in October 2015, when $830 million in provincial funding was announced for the project.

This time, the promise stuck, but that was far from the end of Culbert’s work helping bring the Calgary Cancer Centre to life. In October 2021, Culbert, Osler and a third supporter, Deborah Yedlin, launched the OWN.CANCER campaign.

OWN.CANCER partnered with Alberta Health Services, the Alberta Cancer Foundation and the University of Calgary to raise $250 million to support improved cancer research, treatment and care at the new Calgary Cancer Centre when it opens its doors in 2024. The campaign has raised $117 million as of January 2023.

“This is going to be a one-of-a-kind cancer centre that will rival the top cancer hospitals in the world. It’s exactly what we had envisioned,” Culbert says. “It makes me very emotional when I think about this place…the combination of the doctors and the research coming together, and trying to create the best outcomes for patients. We deserve it.”

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