This World Cancer Day, the BC Cancer Foundation is bringing awareness to the role each of us can play in closing the cancer care gap. We are sharing stories of hope and progress, made possible in part by philanthropic and community support, to enhance equitable access to cancer care in every corner of the province.
“He’s right up there with Terry Fox in my books,” says Joe Lepage on the impact of BC Cancer – Prince George’s Dr. Rob Olson. Dr. Olson is a radiation oncologist and leads the centre’s world-class precision radiation program, including the clinical trial that is the reason Joe is cancer free today.
He met Dr. Olson during his third cancer diagnosis in seven years. Joe has experienced the gamut of cancer treatments – chemo, surgery, chemo again and finally radiation.
The experiences between his first and last diagnosis were night and day, says Joe. Although he’s quick to note he’s grateful each treatment was effective and thinks about the patients decades ago who faced an even more difficult journey.
The first diagnosis in 2015, acute myeloid leukemia, took him from Smithers, where he lived at the time, to Vancouver for six months to undergo aggressive chemotherapy. This was an incredibly difficult experience that impacted his physical and mental health, and he continues to have lingering side effects including brain fog and neuropathy in his feet.
In 2022, he enrolled in Dr. Olson’s precision radiation clinical trial following a lung cancer diagnosis. Dr. Olson’s team specializes in a technique called Stereotactic Ablative Radiotherapy (SABR). SABR delivers high doses of radiation directly to tumour sites, while minimizing exposure to healthy surrounding tissues. This creates a highly effective treatment using fewer doses and with minimal side effects.
This time Joe required just a handful of treatments at BC Cancer – Prince George and experienced virtually no side effects, aside from temporarily aggravating the lingering side effects from leukemia treatment. The trial was a success for both Joe, who’s cancer free, and Dr. Olson who published the research in fall 2022.
Dr. Olson is building on this with his next clinical trial, SIMPLIFY. The trial will test the use of a single dose of SABR on metastatic patients across several cancer types. Led from Prince George, the trial will be available at all BC Cancer centres (and a growing number of international sites), ensuring patients across the province have the opportunity to participate in the cutting-edge trial.
“It’s important to keep the patients at the heart of research,” says Dr. Olson. “SIMPLIFY is a response to what we heard from patients from the previous trial. If you’re coming to Prince George from somewhere like Terrace, five to eight weekly radiation treatments are still a significant burden for the patient. Those patient voices helped guide the development of this trial.”
Covering 600,000 square kilometres, the North is the largest health region in the province and patients can travel over 12 hours to reach care. This can create a physical, emotional and financial toll on patients, especially those required to be away from home weeks at a time.
The BC Cancer Foundation is fundraising $2.2 million to help launch SIMPLIFY.
“The leukemia battle nearly broke me. That’s why I’m so excited about what Dr. Olson is doing with this new trial,” says Joe. “If my friends in small communities, like Smithers, end up needing help there’s a chance they can be in Prince George for a day or two as opposed to months.”
Joe’s grateful to those who came before him – patients, researchers, clinicians and donors – that made the final treatment he received possible. But he knows that outcome isn’t the case for everyone and hopes sharing his story will help ensure more patients have access to the cutting-edge care he did.