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National cancer conference opens itself to the public

For the first time in its 35-year history, the Canadian Association of Psychosocial Oncology (CAPO) conference was scheduled to be held in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Those plans of course, were waylaid by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“As the chair of the conference, I was devastated when we had to move to move it online,” said conference organizer Dr. Sheila Garland, who said the event would have drawn some 150 national delegates, in addition to local doctors, researchers, and patients.

The theme for this year’s conference, “No One is an Island,” is, of course, a play on our geography, and to promote the fact that no one ought to face cancer alone.

Garland said the conference’s sub-theme, “Improving Access and Removing Barriers to Psychosocial Oncology,” is actually bolstered by going online.

 “One of the benefits of moving to digital, is that we can actually achieve our conference theme more. So, if we’re talking about reducing barriers, the cost of attending a conference was a significant barrier. Travel was a barrier. So now, no matter where you are, you can log on and you can attend, and it’s reduced the cost of doing so. So, that’s a big plus,” said Garland.

The conference addresses the social, psychological, emotional, spiritual and quality-of-life aspects of cancer, including the challenges people may face even after they have been declared cancer-free.

“It really takes longer to recover from cancer than to be treated for it,” said Garland. “And that’s why it’s so important to have the psychosocial care, to deal with the emotional and physical consequences of cancer long after the medical treatments have finished. It’s almost an unfair expectation that people place on those who have been diagnosed with cancer, and, as a result, people who have been diagnosed expect that of themselves — they expect that when they ring the bell, they should feel fine. But what happens is, when you’re being treated for cancer, you almost go into a survival mode.”

After the doctor appointments and therapies come to an end, the person faces a whole new set of challenges.

“Everything else kind of comes back to hit them,” said Garland, “all of the emotional consequences, all of the relational consequences, all of the occupational consequences, everything else, all of the impact that it’s (more than) just physical.”

Garland said people often have physical side effects, including sleep disturbances, fatigue, and pain.

As Newfoundland and Labrador consistently holds the highest rate per capita of cancer in Canada, she added, the workshops and presentations will doubtless be a help to many.

“There’s lots of people who can benefit from having additional information on how to cope with the longer term psychological and physical impacts of cancer,” said Garland, adding that there are special presentations specific to Indigenous cancer care and transgender cancer care.

People living in the province also face some unique challenges, she noted.

“In Newfoundland and Labrador, our geography means that a lot of people don’t have the same sort of access to support services in Central, Western, and up into Labrador, as people might have in the Avalon,” said Garland. “It is also a fact that we don’t have access to some of the specialized treatment services and equipment that might be available in other provinces. So, people may have to fly to Halifax or even sometimes Toronto to receive part of their cancer care… Maybe because of our population there hasn’t been the initiative to increase the sorts of psychosocial and oncological supports that other provinces would have.”

The conference, set for July 14 to the 16, is about empowering those affected by cancer, as well getting information to those who would most benefit, said Garland.

The sessions will be recorded, so there’s less pressure for attendees to take time off work to attend. And to keep things social, virtual meeting rooms and network times to chat with other conference attendees and presenters will be arranged.

Tourism videos will also be played throughout the sessions, giving attendees from out of province a taste of what Newfoundland and Labrador is like.

“Hopefully, by doing this, when travel is a little easier and safer to do, that seeing all of the beautiful images of the province will encourage people to take advantage of travel opportunities at a later date,” said Garland.

Those interested in the conference can register at

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