Cancer Patients Cannot Weather Hell and High Water in Alberta Floods – Our Story

Flooding debris littering and closing the Trans Canada Highway in Canmore, Alberta
Flooding debris littering and closing the Trans Canada Highway in Canmore, Alberta

This is the detailed account to the best of my knowledge, of the events since the flood began.


Last Wednesday evening Kevin and I were awake most of the night, listening to the unusual downpour of water – steady, fast and torrential. The only time I’d seen rain like that before was in Haida Gwaii last year – in a coastal rainforest, certainly never in the dry frontranges of the Alberta rockies.

Normally, we are very early risers. The dark dawn of June 20th that marked Kevin’s 39th birthday was no different as he headed into work in Calgary at 4:30 am. I received a text from him not long after he’d left, letting me know that the rain was so bad, there were blockages on the highway just east of us near Deadman’s Flats and gravel was washing over the highway. He wondered if he should turn back home. I turned to social media and this is what I found from a friend living across the valley:

Evacuation-Advisory-Sasha Canmore Cougar Creek Flooding

I quickly let Kevin know and asked him to turn back. Looking further, I saw that there were just a few more postings but no other significant media coverage. Checking Twitter, CRPS Bus Service confirmed school was closed and a State of Emergency had been declared. Oh boy.

Ben was awake, and he and I decided to go out in the early morning dawn to see just what was going on in our immediate neighbourhood. We took some video and were amazed at what was happening around us. There were very few cars out that early, and we saw no emergency or infrastructure vehicles. It was deadly quiet, except for the sounds of the rain and the river.

Here’s a cobbled-together video of the footage Ben and I took around town on the morning of June 20th, between 5:30 and 7:00 am.

When Ben and I were out filming, Kevin called to let us know that the Trans Canada was closed and that he was trapped on the other side of the mountains, at the Stoney Nakoda Casino exit.

Thursday morning was my “chemo prep day”. I was scheduled to have my final 6th chemo delivered on Friday, June 21st. As such, the normal procedure is to have bloodwork done the day prior to chemo delivery to ensure blood counts are at a level that will be safe. Normal procedure calls for the chemo drugs are then mixed once bloodwork has cleared at the local hospital and we’re off and running for the following morning. There are also a few drugs that are given ahead of time (potent steroids) to ensure that your body doesn’t react too terribly. For me, the steroids themselves are awful.

Prior to setting off to the hospital around 9:00, I called to ask if they were operational and it was okay to come in and get the bloodwork done…the answer then was yes. I stopped and filled up with gas, and went into Sobey’s to pick up my pre and post-chemo medications, including the $2800 Neulasta shot that I would need the day following chemo. While I was there, the power went out in Sobeys. Our amazing pharmacist Scott filled my prescriptions and told me not to worry – come back later and settle up. What a guy! Most people wandering around there had no idea what was going on in town. I’m glad I’m an early riser.

Heading over to the hospital, it seemed like business as usual. There was a small amount of flooding in the parking lot but nothing major and a pump hose was running from the hospital. I got my bloodwork completed, and was told I’d hear as normal around noon if we were a “go” for chemo on Friday – at this point, the “go” was all on me – i.e. Were my blood levels and white counts all safe? Shortly around noon, I received the all clear and was told to come in as usual between 9-9:30 for my chemo on Friday morning. I admit having doubts that hospital staff seemed as aware of the situation.

As the day wore on, we could see that things were getting worse. People were losing their homes on the other side of the river, and checking in with each other via phone and social media. I was worried about chemo on Friday, and thinking about Kevin being stuck and our family being separated – all the usual logistics of how we handle these days, and what contingency plans we needed to make, given the flooding circumstances. He tried every way he could to get a way through, but the 1A was also closed and washed out. Finally, he quickly grabbed a room at the Stoney/Nakoda casino and dug in for the day.

The rain continued to pour and I and others spent a lot of time on Facebook and Twitter getting updates, passing along information and sharing evacuation information with friends here in Canmore. I’m so grateful for everyone who kept looking in on us and checking to see that we were okay. So many people volunteered to drive me to chemo for Friday and ensure that I got there. Someone even volunteered to get me a helicopter if Three Sisters Parkway closed. There were helicopters flying everywhere and rumour has it that some of them were flying illegally, taking tourists from spots around town in Canmore out of the flood zone for exhorbitant amounts of money. In my heart, I couldn’t believe that I was thinking that I was WISHING for this poison to be delivered to me. It’s been such a difficult journey and so hard on my body, I’d rather forget about the whole thing like a bad dream.

Photos and reports of terrible flooding in High River started flowing in – another satellite area where chemo is delivered for area residents. Friends posted videos and photos of the other side of the valley in Canmore by Cougar Creek where people were losing houses, and we all felt so terrible. Footage that friend Wade Cameron shot from his backyard at Cougar Creek:

The dexamethasone steroids kicked in with ferocious tenacity by 1 pm on Thursday and I was wired right through until 3 am on Friday. The only good thing about this was that I could watch news, disseminate news and alerts faster than normal. The kids were all a little nervous and Grace especially was stressed and worried for her Dad. My kids were rocks.

Friday morning dawned and Kevin called me to say he could see from his hotel room window that some cars and vehicles were being let through on the Trans Canada Highway, so he was going to go and see if they would allow him to come through and get here as primary caregiver for me during chemo. Lucky us…he was let through and carefully made his way along the broken and battered TCH. Here’s some of what he saw early Friday morning:


Washed out Trans Canada Highway, east of Canmore, Alberta due to flooding
Washed out Trans Canada Highway, east of Canmore, Alberta due to flooding

I received a call from the Canmore hospital at 8:30 saying that they would not be delivering my chemo because the basement of the hospital had flooded and the drugs did not get mixed because a special hood under which they are mixed was damaged. I called my oncologist’s nurse at the Tom Baker, concerned and wanting to be able to assess what this would mean for me if there was a delay in my chemotherapy and to see if I could rearrange it. I was told that a couple of days would be okay, but that longer than that, it would lower the efficacy and therefore my carefully calculated “chances” of survival. I was feeling a bit of dread around this. A bit? That’s an understatement.

After the mastectomy and 5 gruelling rounds of chemo, this was my last one…the big BANG. I’d be warned earlier in the week that this round would be harder on me than the previous rounds, and had done everything I needed to in order to prepare my body and mind for the onslaught and brutal side effects. Everything from internal type chemical burns on my hand to severe and extreme bone, muscle and joint pain, fever…I’ve experienced the bad side of Docetaxel. I’ve even had thoughts of not having my last chemo, but want to take the best shot I can at life! Who wouldn’t?

Just one side effect of chemo - internal "chemical" burns to my hands
Just one side effect of chemo – internal “chemical” burns to my hands.

Kevin arrived home and I was ever so happy to see him. The phone rang again and it was the Canmore hospital calling back…they could INDEED deliver my chemo so please come on down. We grabbed our rubber boots and rain jackets and just as we were driving away, the Canmore hospital called us again to say that they now could NOT deliver it. What a horrible see-saw. I asked to speak to someone in charge and was handed over to an administrator at the Canmore hospital. I asked why now it could not be delivered and she could not provide a logical answer to me. The doctor, nurse…everything was there and apparently the pharmacist was given permission to mix up the drugs in a different area of the hospital. The administrator lost her patience with me and hung up on the phone. (I admit…I’m like a dog with a bone when I’m looking for answers and being hung up on is something I’ve become accustomed to. I get it and am not offended.) We kept driving to the hospital, thinking that a face to face investigation at this point was in order so that we could assess for ourselves and receive an adequate explanation for this yo-yo ride. I was not ready to take “no” for an answer….but I did need some sort of logical answer and believe that I, as well as any patient facing this kind of circumstance, should deserve. Just some respect.

We were able to get into the hospital – no problem at all, although there was quite a bit of water on the roads surrounding it. When we arrived, it was very quiet. I asked the two reception staff if there was an additional state of emergency in place that would cause any non-delivery and they indicated that no…things were very quiet and they had not been notified of anything. Kevin and I proceeded to the cancer care clinic area and found our chemo nurse there. I announced that I was here for my chemo and she told me that she was not allowed to deliver the service.  I was not surprised at this answer, and asked who I needed to speak with for further clarification as to why. I was pointed in the direction of the hospital administrator’s office.

Me...June 25th, 2013
Me…June 25th, 2013

The administrator ushered us into the boardroom and I asked her why it was that things had changed so quickly and why chemo could not be delivered, since we were aware that a) the chemo nurse was present b) the doctor was available c) we had information that the drug could be safely mixed on site. Despite all manner of questions, she was unable to give us a logical answer. She told us that maybe our nurse was needed to help prepare lunches for the current 60 residents. Really? Wow…this is a reason chemo can’t be delivered? Kevin and I both offered to help do that or get volunteers to help if they were short-staffed. She was just not making sense to us at all. She told us there were 60 patients currently there, with 100 staff. That’s a pretty high ratio, I’d say. After a bit, she admitted that she needed to take a break so we waited for her to return…..tick….tock…..tick…..tock……

She returned with our chemo nurse and another staff member. We again asked the same questions, but were not given a logical answer. We offered to try and contact other higher officials and were told that they were in fact “flying over top of us right now”. The other staff member, who was not introduced then told us, “We know things we can’t tell you.”

Right. That’s the best way to trigger my Oliver Stone reflex, chicklet.

I told her that in fact, the situation was one that was affecting my treatment, life expectancy, etc….and likely that of others, so if there was something that they needed to tell us…they needed to tell us. They would not, however be forthcoming with us, and we left the meeting.

I like things that make sense. Give me the reason why something can’t happen, and I’m the first one to accept it and try to find a solution to the problem. Tell me that there’s something that you can’t tell me….I’m on that like a dog. It’s disrespectful and that hits hard on my own core values.

I let go of it for a day…trying to figure out what exactly was going on at the hospital, but didn’t see any high alerts, evacuations or anything. I did see a need for help in my neighbouring communities of Morley and Siksika so spent a day trying to get media to pay attention to the flooding and homeless in both of those communities. Buy the end of Saturday, I’d Facebooked, Twittered and social-mediaed myself into exhaustion. Ever grateful that Dea Fischer and the crew at the Canmore Legion picked up the ball when my energy went south and organized supplies to be delivered the following day.

Sunday morning found us taking 18 truckloads of goods out to Morley. Yeah! It felt good to be occupied and help out, and thank goodness the steroids were still keeping me pumped up. Community successes buoy me onwards…how about you?

Food Hampers packed for delivery to the Stoney/Nakoda community at Morley
Food Hampers packed for delivery to the Stoney/Nakoda community at Morley
Volunteers hard at work at the Canmore Legion, sorting and packing donated goods for redistribution to those in need.
18 Truckloads of supplies, water, clothing, food and staples delivered to Morley by Canmore volunteers
18 Truckloads of supplies, water, clothing, food and staples delivered to Morley by Canmore volunteers


Allison Poucette and Erica Ryder, strong women community leaders and volunteers from the Stoney/Nakoda Nation
Allison Poucette and Erica Ryder, strong women community leaders and volunteers from the Stoney/Nakoda Nation

I was privileged to have spent almost six years as the Program Manager for Indigenous Leadership at The Banff Centre. During that time, I met many leaders and community members from First Nations, Metis and Inuit communities from across Canada. What has always inspired me is the resilience, sense of humour, determination, resourcefulness and exuberance when faced with adversity. This time around, I see incredible teamwork and leadership in my neighbouring First Nations communities of Morley and Siksika. My heart goes out to all of you, as I know first-hand that your challenges are greater than those off-reserve in regular times, never mind times of crisis and devastation.

A friend sent this to remind me to care for myself so that I could care for others.
A friend sent this to remind me to care for myself so that I could care for others.

By the end of day, I was exhausted and collapsed into bed…thoughts turned again to myself and my family and I began thinking again about my cancer treatment and what impact this was going to have personally, on my own life and mortality.

Monday dawned after a restless night, and again I began contemplating my own particular situation. The longer I thought about it, the more concerned I became, thinking about the devastation to infrastructure all across the southern part of the province and concerned about how officials would be prioritizing services. It’s scary to see railways being fixed immediately, and declarations of “Stampede Will Happen Come Hell or High Water” when you can’t get the medicines to get you better. Hmmm….something amiss with this triage, methinks.

I called into the Canmore hospital to see if they had anything planned or scheduled and was told that no…not yet…but they would get back to me. I was told that it would be two weeks before the hood to mix the chemicals would be fixed. I admit crawling back into bed and having a little cry, trying to absorb what this meant to our family. By the afternoon, I picked myself up again I got on  social media  and began tweeting about questions for cancer and chemo delivery. The story started to get picked up by others and people began to ask questions. I was happy to hear this. I’m very thankful to Kim Castleberry and Paul Thompson as well as CTV, Global, CBC and the Calgary Herald for responding quickly and asking questions about my particular circumstance and story. They in turn, retweeted to the Minister of Health and other authorities. By sharing our stories, we can get to the bottom and ultimately find the common points we are all concerned with…and fix the darned mess – if not for this time, then the next. There was a rather ugly “troll” telling me to drive to Edmonton and get off Twitter…to quit complaining….yikes…pffft. Boy, people can get ugly.

A few hours later, I got a call from a lady at Alberta Health Services that they would arrange to have my chemo mixed at the Tom Baker in Calgary and delivered to Canmore by courier mid-morning Wednesday so that I could receive my treatment. Wow. GREAT! She rushed off the line at 4:30 to ensure the orders for the drugs were received by the pharmacy. Phew.

Then I got thinking…what about all the OTHER patients? Who was going to do the same for them? What was going on in High River for the cancer centre patients there? What was happening for those at Holy Cross in Calgary which was closed down. At this time, I still don’t have those answers and I don’t know for sure if everyone else in Canmore who should be getting their doses tomorrow…will get their treatments.

For the future, this is something that we really have to consider. With the Tom Baker Cancer centre at or over capacity under normal circumstances, it concerns me that in times of disaster and stress, that there are potentially more lives being put at stake than need be.

Here are a few suggestions to the province and Alberta Health Services to avoid this in the future:

  1. Put adequate back-up plans in place to ensure no cancer patient’s treatment is delayed. Zero tolerance.
  2. Empower hospital administration to adequately address emergency circumstances with patients in a timely and organized manner. “I can’t tell you the secret that I know.” does not help or instill confidence in the system.
  3. Deliver leadership and crisis training to address these concerns.
  4. Improve communications regarding health care in emergency situations.
  5. If chemical transport isn’t possible due to hazardous material restrictions, a plan for how patients can get added to treatment rosters in Calgary or the nearest delivery site to their location.

That’s all I can write at this time on this subject. I’m bushed and the media has been calling (thank you for getting the story). The steroids are now racing through my veins, making me a little odd-headed so I daren’t write more at this time. I will update on this post as I find out more information and I hope that in sharing my story thus far will help someone else. Thank you to all those who have helped get things in place and keep working hard to ensure this won’t happen again.


“Stampede can wait….a cancer patient cannot weather hell and high water.”


UPDATE: June 27, 2013 – Chemo Delivered to Me on June 26th, 2013


At 9:00 am yesterday, I received a call from my chemo nurse at the Canmore Hospital. She said that they anticipated the Docetaxel to be delivered around noon, so to please come in around 10:30 – 11:00 to start the additional pre-chemo meds. They deliver a hefty IV steroid and Benadryl to counter-act the toxicity and allergic affects of this highly toxic drug. I hadn’t slept much the night before because of the oral pre-steroids, and was feeling a bit shakey. Kevin missed yet another day of work to take me. That’s a total of five days of missed work because of the flood and delays in chemo, which is hard on our family financially. My daughter Grace has been affected by the events of the last few days and has been sticking very close to me. She wanted to come and be with me for this last round. I admit I wanted her there too – she, the boys and Kevin is why I’m doing all of this. I have to admit I’d be happy to face my time, if that’s what the Creator has set for my path.

My chemo nurse Isabelle has been with me through all of this, and I have to admire her care of our family, her professionalism and willingness to do anything and everything she can to ensure my best health. I was very happy to see her after the stressful incidents over the weekend. We got all set up – she worries about finding a vein for me. I have only one arm that can be used, as the mastectomy surgery took place on my right side – the arm that I use to paint, which…sadly, I still can’t get quite working properly yet. I have high hopes that will all settle in time for me, and I can begin to get some of my thoughts out artistically on what this journey has meant to me.

On a side-not for continuing mess-ups in Canmore, the doctor who was supposed to be in attendance at the clinic yesterday did not show up. I was told that he had a meeting in Edmonton in the morning, and then took the Jasper Parkway to get through to Canmore. Um….the road between Banff and Canmore was closed to only the Roam bus traffic at the time, so I have NO idea where this guy’s head is at  – certainly not focussed on my care…and I’m glad that he wasn’t there…although protocol says he must be present in the clinic when this drug is being administered. What a foolish man. This is the same guy who I talked to three rounds ago to express how bad the side effects were on my hands and arms, and that I wasn’t able to paint. He had the audacity to say…well, can you paint with your left hand? Really dude?…both arms are affected. Grow a pair of ears that work.

A decision was made to allow my chemo  to go because there was a doctor present in emergency, and two nurses were available. Whew….but according to hospital admin on Friday….that was a MUST…and that was all in place then. See? These are the inconsistencies in protocol and procedures that must be addressed in order to keep us all safe. I take some weird comfort in the fact that CBC was busy texting me during all this trying to know for sure if it was going…or not.

Soaking my hands in ice water in hopes of relieving neuropathy and internal chemical burns caused to my hands. We never know if this will work, but we try...and yes, it hurts a lot!
Soaking my hands in ice water in hopes of relieving neuropathy and internal chemical burns caused to my hands. We never know if this will work, but we try…and yes, it hurts a lot!

I did not see any other chemo patients in the clinic in Canmore yesterday, and I am hoping that everyone who needs this service is getting it in a very timely manner. This report below from Global states that all the other patients have been moved to Calgary and Lethbridge for their chemo treatments. This worries me, and I will try to continue to follow up with my recommendations for patient advocacy as the months in front unfold. We can all do better in the delivery of our care, and we cannot just leave it to Alberta Health Services, the doctors and nurses to advocate on our behalf. They’re busy trying to deliver the services. We must be pro-active and solution-oriented as private citizens and I believe, continue to partner with private funding sources and government to ensure the funding flows into the areas that it is required, and not haphazardly applied.

System designs, adequate contingency planning, training and support for leaders in crisis management should be a paramount priority. So, while we’re all busy in the honeymoon phase slapping everyone on the backs for the volunteerism and close calls….it’s also very important to highlight gap difficulties and ensure that they are addressed both at the systemic and human level. We never know if the next stormcloud is just on the horizon, and Alberta could not handle a repeat of this event in the next month. June (flood month)…still isn’t over.

I have to say how pleased I am that the media picked up this story and dug hard to find out the facts about those affected by the closures and the flood. All major networks connected with me to ask the right questions, and I appreciate their willingness in a time of a million critical stories, to filter through and tell this one.  I don’t feel this story is about me. It’s about all the cancer patients in Alberta who are doing their best to fight this terrible disease and even worse curative path to health. I’m thankful to Global  and Heather Yourex for airing a good segment and hearing Dr. Craighead state that the Tom Baker Clinic has been over-capacity for ten years is a powerful fact. Apologies for the shaky vid…using what tech we have at the moment.

I am less pleased, but not surprised by the spin-doctored press release from Alberta Health Services  of July 25th, 2013 stating how wonderfully Canmore Hospital performed during the flooding. In my opinion and from our personal experience there are incorrect statements in here stated by hospital administrator Barb Shellian which I hope she will find the courage to correct. I stand by my recommendations listed above and pledge to keep doing as much as I can through my own health challenges to ensure Albertan cancer patients receive the best and most timely care that is possible.

As things stand for me personally now, this delay has untold, unstudied effects on the efficacy of my treatment and I will forever have the question in my mind that if…just if they had delivered on time, it would make a difference to me in the long run. My radiation now is pushed out to the end of July, and our family will be dealing not only with those treatment travels back and forth to Calgary, but another 6 week recovery after the radiation treatments into September. If things had gone as planned, we may have been able to make some important trips to Haida Gwaii to see the first pole raised in 130 years in the Gwaii Haanas Park area, but that will now have to wait. As such, plans for my second mastectomy will be longer now, not even considering in some other issues they’ve found along the way. For now, we will continue to go day by day. Today, I will receive my painful Neulasta shot this afternoon which will lay me out for a couple of weeks. Thank you all again for your help and support.

I am forever grateful for your willingness to engage in being beautiful Full Time Human Beings, warts and all.

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Catherine Olsen

    Dear Janice, Thank you for sharing this with us. I can’t believe the hospital was so uncommunicative with you. Thank God you were able to get your chemo. Love and prayers to you and your family. Even in the midst of your own difficulties you were able to be there to help others.

    1. Janice Tanton

      The hospital indeed was uncommunicative and difficult to deal with. That being said, I admit to being a dog with a bone when I smell something not being handled well. Today, the AHS has countered with a press release saying things were pretty normal. I guess that’s to ensure that they cover themselves as best as they can. I would like to see the improvements that I listed above in my blog which I think would help to alleviate problems such as this in the future. While I believe with my heart that the doctors and nurses and other staff were doing the best job they could and sincerely wanted to continue to deliver my chemotherapy on schedule Friday, I think it is highly inappropriate for hospital administrator Barb Shellian to state ” While the flood caused,

      “a few interruptions in our normal course of events,” the unflappable Shellian — who came to Canmore hospital 38 years ago when it was “a little 10-bed cottage hospital on a hill” — adds calmly: “We dealt with those interruptions.”

      “If you went on our acute-care unit and asked people what they noticed that was maybe different at the Canmore Hospital since last Thursday, they may say, ‘Well, we’re getting our meals on paper plates.’ In the big scheme of things, did they miss out on any care? No. Were there any risks introduced to their stay at the Canmore Hospital? No.”

      That is an out and out distruth.

      You can read the Alberta Health Services spin-doctor press release in full here:

      My motivation is to improve all health care for cancer patients affected by this flood. Knowing the facts, the details and the mistruths is important. We require correct and timely information.

  2. Janis

    So glad to hear that you finally got your chemo! You’re a survivor but they sure aren’t making it any easier for you. May the Goddess hold you in her healing light!

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