How focusing on the individual, instead of the disease, is helping MUHC cancer patients experience growth and healing at every stage of their cancer journey

Speaking with Dr. Justin Sanders about serious illness and the end of life is not nearly as morbid as its sounds. In fact, it’s surprisingly soothing and life-affirming.

Dr. Sanders is the head of the McGill University Health Centre’s Division of Supportive and Palliative Care. He exudes energy and empathy, and his passion for his work is palpable. “My job is to help people with serious illnesses to live well throughout the course of their advanced cancer. I don’t want them to be focused on their death. I want them to focus on their life,” he says.

According to Dr. Sanders, healing and growth are possible at every stage of a person’s life – even when that person is experiencing a serious, life-threatening illness like cancer. “Even the most advanced medical treatments can only do so much to improve the quantity or quality of a person’s life. Fortunately, research has  shown that compassionate, whole-person care can not only help seriously ill patients feel better, but also empower them to take control over their wellbeing and find growth and meaning in their experience,” he explains.

The MUHC’s Division of Supportive and Palliative Care strives to meet the physical, psychological, informational, and spiritual needs of its seriously ill patients. It employs a variety of healthcare professionals and encompasses a variety of healthcare programs and services. Although not exclusively available to cancer patients, the latter make up the majority of its clientele, and it’s for a very logical reason that Dr. Sanders’ primary office is located in the Cedars Cancer Centre.

“The history of palliative care is actually inextricably linked to the history of cancer care. In fact, most of the expertise we developed over the first forty years of this field grew out of our experience working with people who had cancer,” explains Sanders. “It was through learning about and addressing their needs at the end of life that we gained the expertise that helps us support patients across the trajectory of advanced cancer,” he adds.

Palliative and Supportive Care: A Brief History

Did you know that the McGill University Health Centre was the birthplace of palliative care?

McGill surgical oncologist Balfour Mount coined the term “palliative care” and founded the first hospital-based unit of its kind at the Royal Victoria Hospital, in 1975. In its early years, palliative care focused exclusively on the care of individuals at – or near – the end of life. It has since evolved into an interdisciplinary practice that addresses the physical, psychological, spiritual, and social suffering experienced by all people who are facing a serious disease, and at every stage of their illness. Supportive care is a concept that has come to mean the collection of services that are available to people with earlier stages of cancer, including those who are likely to be cured but who suffer in ways that we have intervention to address.

Currently, Dr. Sanders is dedicating his time to developing The Cedars Program in Whole-Person Cancer Care. “Whole-person care has a double meaning: It means looking after the whole person, not just their disease. And, it also means helping an individual feel like a whole person, not just a cancer patient,” explains Dr. Sanders. His vision for the program is to provide the best possible care to seriously ill cancer patients from the moment of diagnosis. “There is ample and irrefutable evidence that supportive and palliative care benefits people across the entire trajectory of their illness. It enhances quality of life, psychological well-being for both patients and their loved ones, and even, in some cases, longevity. And, the earlier the care is provided, the greater the benefits,” he stresses.

So, what exactly is meant by whole-person cancer care? “It refers to a suite of programs, services and treatments that relieve physical and emotional suffering and that improve health and wellbeing,” says Dr. Sanders. “But it’s more than that: It’s also about building relationships with patients through skilled, authentic, and empathetic communication. And it’s about having honest conversations with patients about the progression of their disease and their options, which empowers them to make the best decisions for their own health, to live their life on their own terms, and to regain control over their body,” he adds.

About Dr. Justin Sanders, MD, MSC

Dr. Justin Sanders

“There is a lot of distress involved in a cancer diagnosis, be it physical or psychological, but we now have so much knowledge and experience that we can anticipate the issues that patients are going to face, and we can proactively alleviate their suffering and meet their needs, right from the start.”

Dr. Sanders is the Director of the Division of Supportive and Palliative Care at the MUHC and the Kappy and Eric M. Flanders Chair of Palliative Care at McGill University. His research interests lie at the intersection of culture, communication, and serious illness, with a focus on promoting authentic healing relationships. An internationally recognized expert in his field, he is leading the development of The Cedars Program in Whole-Person Cancer Care and of The Cedars Oncology Supportive Care Centre, in collaboration with the Cedars Cancer Foundation.

The Cedars Cancer Foundation is a huge proponent of whole-person cancer care – so much so, that it helped establish a centre dedicated entirely to supportive care for MUHC cancer patients.

“Cedars exists to help ease the pain and suffering of cancer patients and their families. We support the MUHC’s fight against cancer by funding research, education and treatment, but, a big part of our focus is on funding care,” says Cedars President and CEO Jeff J. Shamie. “Care is so much more than medical interventions. It’s also about looking after a person’s emotional, mental and spiritual needs and ensuring that they feel cared for. That’s why we’re supporting the establishment of the Cedars Oncology Supportive Care Centre, just across the street from the Cedars Cancer Centre. It’s in its development stage at the moment, but it’s soon going to become a welcoming place where patients can get care that complements and ameliorates the sometimes difficult side effects of chemotherapy, radiation and surgery.”

The Cedars Oncology Supportive Care Centre will be home to physicians, therapists, nutritionists, and other health and wellbeing professionals. It’s modelled on similar centres in the USA and elsewhere in Canada and it’s the first of its kind in Quebec. It will soon house:

• The only cancer pain clinic in the province;
• The only specialized medical clinic for lymphedema (cancer treatment-related swelling) in the province;
• A cancer rehabilitation program, including nutrition support and education;
• A cancer survivorship program;
• Integrative oncology programs and services;
• A psychosocial oncology program, to help patients who are suffering from mental health issues due to their illness; and
• Palliative care services.

It’s also going to be a space where patients can try some complementary wellness practices, like yoga, meditation, and reiki, which have proven health benefits. “Our goal is to create a space where patients get access to integrative therapies that make them feel better and where they feel safe asking about other therapies that they might like to explore,” says Dr. Sanders. “We know that people affected by cancer look outside our walls to find treatments to help themselves feel better. This is an opportunity to hear patients needs and try to meet them within our walls and under the supervision of an oncology team that knows and cares for them. This is about creating the potential for healing.”