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Local physician shares rewards of working with children with cancer

As a physician who provides care for families of children diagnosed with cancer, Dr. Jessica Norris admits that she sees the role as a privilege, not a burden
Dr. Jessica Norris
Dr. Jessica Norris

When people learn that Dr. Jessica Norris is a Consultant Pediatrician at Grand River Hospital (GRH), she is often asked how she handles "the sadness of childhood cancer and death?"

GRH supports approximately 500 visits at its pediatric outpatient clinic in a calendar year. And as a physician who provides care for families of children diagnosed with cancer, Norris admits that she sees the role as a privilege, not a burden.

"I have been inspired by their stories and the stories many families have been brave enough to share," Norris said.

Her motivation to become a pediatrician was inspired by her childhood exposure to the field. Her younger brother suffered "months of illness" until a pediatrician diagnosed him with Crohn's disease. After that, she said she felt first-hand the influence his physicians had.

"I saw the impact that childhood illness has on the entire family and gained a true appreciation for family-centred care.

"Prior to medical school, I worked in research at SickKids (The Hospital for Sick Children) with a focus on pediatric pain management. This research centred around a biopsychosocial approach to pain management, using medication and non-pharmacological strategies."

Norris added: "What I think a lot of people don't realize is the impact this diagnosis has on the whole family. Parents' lives flip upside down. There are impacts on mental health, physical health and financial health."

Often, treatment requires that the child spend more time in the hospital than in school or enjoying the familiarity of a routine.

"To accommodate this, a parent [may] need to leave their job, losing an important source of income. If there are also other children at home, you can imagine how difficult it can be difficult to juggle everyone's needs," she said.

As a physician, Norris said she's witnessed the behind-the-scenes bravery that unravels with a cancer diagnosis and carries "great admiration for these children and their families."

"These experiences play an important role in my approach to medicine and managing pediatric oncology patients." And thanks to "many advances in treatment," a cancer diagnosis is not always a death sentence. "For example, childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia has a 94 per cent five-year survival rate." But an "under-recognized aspect of cancer is survivor care."

In 2014, founder and mentor Dr. Jodi Rosner introduced Norris to the Kitchener Kids with Cancer Run and Walk committee. Funds raised from the event support an organization called POGO (Pediatric Oncology Group of Ontario).

"Even though a child may be cured, 60 per cent experience long-term impacts of cancer and cancer treatment. POGO not only supports families during their treatment but also has programs for survivor aftercare," she shared.

After a forced two-year hiatus (due to the pandemic), the run/walk is returning this fall, and the need for support, according to Norris, is greater than ever.

"I have seen the defeat on a parent's face when their child must be admitted to hospital (again). Being able to provide care closer to home, surrounded by familiar faces, can be a comfort to them. I have continued to be involved with the race because it truly is for a significant cause.”

In addition to the various programs offered and supported by POGO, its Satellite Clinic Program "allows patients to receive care closer to home by providing nurses with expertise in cancer care. This helps to minimize travel, costs and family disruption.

"They also create protocols for a standardized treatment approach and ensure every patient gets the best care."

As treasurer for the Kitchener Kids with Cancer Run, she says a lot of time and effort is poured into making the event a success. A "large crew of volunteers" ensure that everything "goes smoothly."

"One of the highlights has been the Kitchener Rangers. These hockey players come out year after year to support our cause. They do the walk and talk with the kids, sometimes giving piggy backs to tired little feet."

In 2014, the event raised $17,000, which increased to almost $90,000 in 2019. "With the cancellation of the race in 2020 and a virtual race in 2021, we lost some fundraising stamina. However, we are hoping to come back strong this year. It would be amazing to reach $100,000.”

Immediately after this year's run, Norris and the committee will begin work on next year's event. "Unfortunately, with COVID, we had two years without an in-person run. I am excited to return to our large event; it is a very special day.

She added: “I imagine that the pandemic has left these families who were already isolated to feel even more so. Restrictions on visitation in the hospital mean that children who spend (up to) months in the hospital cannot see their siblings and extended family. At certain points during the pandemic, only one parent would have been allowed to stay in the hospital. Adding to that, these children are often significantly immunocompromised, putting them at higher risk for infections, including COVID.

“I encourage everyone to listen to these stories and gain an appreciation for what these children and their families experience.”

You can find their stories on the run’s website and Facebook page

This year’s Kitchener Kids with Cancer Run and Walk is happening on September 11th at the Ken Seiling Waterloo Region Museum.

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