Childhood cancer survivor gives back

Male nurse offers hard-won advice

Matt Frank is on a five-kilometre run. He starts at the University of Calgary, winds past a small pond and heads down a path that leads to a popular city park. A kinesiology student and a competitive kayaker at the national level, he’s a poster boy for fitness.

There is a time bomb ticking in his brain, though he doesn’t know it yet.

His red T-shirt warns, “In case of emergency, break dance.” When he veers into a café to ask urgently for water, it’s a signal that the cancerous brain tumor pressing on his pituitary gland is triggering an insistent thirst.

Months afterward, several doctors fail to see the signs of the tumor that has been there since Frank was a child. Complications finally send him to Foothills Hospital’s emergency department. From there, things move quickly. His parents rush from another city to be with him as a storm of medical information gathers.

“There is a resiliency and a pure love for life that can come with this sort of experience. The work that Nancy does is a gateway into allowing healthcare providers to understand the potential for this strength.”

“I called my parents from the emergency room,” recalls Frank. “I told them not to freak out. Later, I needed them to be strong for me. They were my support at my bedside the entire time and they were my caregivers.”

Frank, who was 20 when diagnosed, had what was considered a pediatric brain tumor, which allowed him to be treated at Alberta Children's Hospital. He would undergo chemotherapy and life-saving surgery before learning to walk again – and run.

Now 25 and a registered nurse who works at Foothills Hospital’s neurological rehabilitation unit, just minutes from where he once lay as a patient, Frank sits on a patient and family advisory council that meets with physicians and advises on patient care.

The UCalgary nursing faculty alumnus, who graduated last year, has dedicated his life to helping others. He offers a hard-won perspective that benefits families facing the same challenges that he and his family have undergone.

Childhood cancer research becomes a gateway

UCalgary psychosocial oncology expert Nancy Moules’ research on parents who struggle to deal with childhood cancer shows how swiftly they are overwhelmed – and how difficult it is for them to try and suddenly understand the medical system.

There is no single course of action, no handy, one-size-fits-all parental guidebook, as each case brings its own peculiarities. There is stress, there is uncertainty and there are financial pressures – all while parents scramble to do the best for their child.

“Although the child might be the focus of treatment, the family is the unit of care,” says Moules. Consequently, as her research indicates, parents are often strained to the breaking point.
Matt’s mom, Judy, says the initial shock of learning her son had brain cancer gave way to a routine that took her and her husband to his hospital bedside daily.

“There is no day or night in the intensive care unit,” she says. “You have to develop the inner strength to cope with [your child’s] illness and focus on his recovery – everything else is very difficult to manage.”

Frank views Moules’ research as a beam of light that can reveal the human side of the cancer experience, which can sometimes be lost in the search for a cure and the day-to-day necessities of patient care.

“The work Nancy does adds an important human piece,” says Frank. “There is so much done in the way of science and treatment, but the other aspects can be forgotten.”

When speaking at a public event that honoured Moules, Frank told the audience her research can enable healthcare providers to help their patients.

“We all return from a diagnosis of cancer fundamentally changed,” Frank said. “There is a resiliency and a pure love for life that can come with this sort of experience. The work that Nancy does is a gateway into allowing healthcare providers to understand the potential for this strength.”

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