Retiring from work, but not from caring

Published on July 4, 2014

Joanne Cumminger, the Pictou County Health Authority's first patient care navigator, is retiring but she expects to find lots of keep her busy.

Even when you love your job, there comes a day to retire and for Joanne Cumminger that day was Friday.

            “For somebody who went into nursing to help people, I’ve had a dream job but it is time to give way to the next generation,” she said.

            Cumminger worked her first shift at the Aberdeen Hospital 39 years ago, an evening shift after graduating that afternoon. She may be leaving her job as cancer care patient navigator with the Pictou County Health Authority but she will never stop advocating for education and care.

            “We have a lot of people in Pictou County who do not get regular mammograms or pap tests or take part in the provincial colon cancer screening program. Our numbers are not good and we have to change that.”

            The position of cancer care navigator emerged from a pilot project designed to alleviate widespread frustration with cancer care.

            “All the cancer care was in Halifax and we had to find a way to give people who could not go to Halifax, for whatever reason, the same standard of care. Now we have three oncologists who come to the Aberdeen and see patients. For many people that makes a world of difference.”

            Transportation, financial resources, support network, family responsibilities and the seriousness of the illness all factor into where a person is treated and followed-up. Referrals to the patient navigator come through family doctors, surgeons and pharmacists but a patient, or even a friend, family member, neighbor or co-worker, is welcome to make contact.

            “A cancer diagnosis is quite overwhelming at first. Treatment is obviously a big issue but it is often not foremost in the patient’s mind. Often the most immediate concern is financial. Am I going to lose my job? How long will I be off work? How am I going to pay my bills? Or it might be who is going to look after my children or how do I tell my children. ”

            In all cases, a patient navigator can help but the first step is sitting down with the patient and listening.

            “It is really important to get to know the patient. There is no point in giving an armful of brochures to someone who doesn’t read, no point in talking about the importance of family support for someone who is without family.”

            Linking people with existing services is the next step in helping them cope.

            “Thanks to the generosity of our service clubs and the people of Pictou County, we can help with some of the financial burden. We may be able to provide a gas card or find a volunteer to drive you to an appointment. If a mother is in hospital in Halifax for an extended period with one child we can arrange for the rest of the family to spend a night in a hotel nearby.”

            The patient navigator can also provide a patient with a wig or prosthesis or access a program that helps patients contend with hair loss and skin care issues related to cancer treatment.

            “For a woman who has lost a breast to cancer, a prosthesis is not a luxury but a necessity. It goes beyond appearance because she is going to develop back problems. In the past there were women who went without because of the expense.”  

            Bringing a dragon boat to New Glasgow was one of the highlights of Cumminger’s work in cancer care. She remembers hundreds of people lining the banks of the East River in 1999 as the boat was launched and then spun in circles because no one knew how to row.

            “To go down to the river now and watch those women, all different ages, rowing together and supporting each other and to hear them laughing together, that’s something I treasure.”

            Cumminger has not walked in her patient’s shoes, but she knows well what a cancer diagnosis can do to a family. She was eight years old when her mother died of breast cancer and a nursing student when her father died of bowel cancer.

            “Hospitals were very different then. My father was in the ICU and our neighbor would tell us when she was on duty so we could sneak my youngest sisters in to see him for a few minutes. They were in Grade 10 and he was dying, but only adults were allowed in ICU and rules were rules.”

            When Cumminger began in pediatrics she remembers parents could only stand in the doorway of a sick child’s room which she called torture for everyone. 

            “It amazes me to think of the changes I’ve seen. When I started nursing there was an ash tray at the nursing station and a nurse would leave her cigarette burning while she went to a patient’s room.”

            With increasing education the public perception of cancer has changed dramatically and many people are more open about diagnosis and treatment, she said.

            “We just had 125 survivors take part in the Relay for Life so that’s really something to celebrate along with the money raised.”

            Cumminger insists it is important for families to share information because some cancers have a genetic component.

            “I really encourage people to get their pathology reports and share them with family. Daughters need to know everything about a mother or grandmother’s breast cancer diagnosis. A man needs to know if he has a family history of prostate cancer. We all need to know if we are at risk for particular cancers.”

            Cumminger plans to spend the summer taking things easy with her already-retired husband and enjoying time with her two sons but it is only the job she is giving up.

            “I’ve got a passion for cancer care so I can’t walk away from it. I’ll find ways to help where I can. “

- Rosalie MacEachern is a Stellarton resident and freelance writer who seeks out people who work behind the scenes on hobbies or jobs that they love the most. If you have someone you think should she should profile in an upcoming article, she can be reached at