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The Impact of Cancer Care and Research in the Fraser Valley

February 6, 2024

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.

“A positive experience” is not how Svitlana Bal imagined she would describe her time at BC Cancer when she was first diagnosed six years ago.

But thanks to the kindness of the staff at BC Cancer – Surrey and a cutting-edge clinical trial, Svitlana is cancer free today and able to reflect on her journey with this outlook.

The diagnosis came as a shock, says Svitlana – sitting alongside her daughter Olga who is translating from Ukrainian to English. The Bal family is originally from Ukraine, and her daughters – along with a BC Cancer interpreter – have accompanied Svitlana as she navigated the B.C. healthcare system.

Her journey began in a Surrey emergency room for stomach pain and eventually led to an ovarian cancer diagnosis requiring chemotherapy at BC Cancer – Surrey.

When looking back on her time at BC Cancer – where she now only goes for follow up appointments – the memories Svitlana shares are about the people who made the difference in her experience.

“Everyone there was welcoming and it was very warm inside, even though it’s a clinic and you might expect it to be the opposite. When I finished treatment, I was actually missing the nurses. I was seeing them on a regular basis and we got to know each other. They were so kind and friendly.”

Svitlana participated in a clinical trial led by Dr. Aalok Kumar, BC Cancer – Surrey medical oncologist and the Provincial Systemic Chair in Gynecologic Oncology. Another person whose care kept Svitlana’s spirits up throughout treatment.

Clinical trials help provide patients the latest in life-saving care and enable researchers to advance more precise, effective standard of care treatments.

Importantly to Svitlana, she was able to maintain her regular lifestyle and routine throughout treatment. She was especially grateful for this as in Ukraine, at the time, in-patient care for tests and treatments was more common. Being home, surrounded by her family’s love and support, helped her maintain a positive mindset – something she says was important in her recovery.

“Nobody wants to be diagnosed with cancer, but it’s more treatable today than I think a lot of people expect. I was surprised to learn this, but I hope telling my story helps others to learn this.”

The Fraser region is the fastest growing areas of B.C. and over 40% of Surrey residents are immigrants, according to Statistics Canada. This diversity also makes it an ideal place to conduct cancer research.

“In medical research, it’s important to strive to have participants that reflect the diversity of our communities,” says Dr. Kumar.

Dr. Kumar is leading cutting-edge clinical trials in breast and gynecological cancers from the centre that are transforming outcomes for women like Svitlana in the Fraser Valley and across the province.

His team for example, along with other BC Cancer oncologists, played a large role in the introduction of an innovative treatment called immunotherapy for endometrial cancer – one of the most common gynecologic cancers. Their work helped develop a therapy that has improved the survival of patients diagnosed with advanced endometrial cancer.

BC Cancer’s network of regional cancer centres creates space for a great number of clinical trials to be available across the province, but not all trials are available at each centre. This means there may still be a need to travel to access the latest in care. The new BC Cancer centre under construction in Surrey will help change that.

“In addition to expanding our capacity for standard of care treatments, the new centre will bring the opportunity to have more research studies available closer to home for patients in the Fraser Valley.”

The BC Cancer Foundation is fundraising $30 million to help equip the new centre with essential technology and equipment.

Cancer research is moving at an unprecedented pace and it’s thanks to world-class researchers like Dr. Kumar, who’s life-saving work is made possible in part through donor support.

“When I started my career, I wouldn’t have expected to be advancing B.C.’s standard of care every year or every other year. But we’re seeing leaps and bounds in terms of the options available for our patients. We’re constantly raising the bar for patient outcomes and it’s motivating to see as an oncologist.”

Learn more about how BC Cancer Foundation donors are closing the care gap for patients across the province.