Paying it Forward

By Humber River Health

By Glynis Ratcliffe

When you put Shaniza Sakoor and Danielle Cameron in the same room to discuss their individual experiences with breast cancer at Humber River Health, it’s clear they are kindred spirits. Both are effusive in their praise of one another.

Shaniza Sakoor and Danielle Cameron chat over coffee at local restaurant Speducci Mercatto.

“I echo what Shaniza said so well. You are truly amazing, Shaniza!”

“Danielle is so good at speaking about this, I’m really just riding on her coattails here.”

While Sakoor, a 50-year-old IT project manager at a bank, and Cameron, a 44-year-old stay-at- home mother of three, might not at first glance appear to have much in common – they were also diagnosed with different types of breast cancer at different life stages, years apart – the two women share a goal. Both finished their treatments at Humber wanting to provide support to other cancer patients. It’s how the two met and ultimately co-created a nationally recognized peer-to- peer support program for cancer patients at Humber that launched in 2022. The program pairs cancer survivors who have completed treatment at the hospital with newly diagnosed patients via a unique digital app.

According to Canadian Cancer Statistics 2023, there’s a 45 per cent chance of developing cancer in your lifetime, while one in four Canadians will die of cancer. But that’s not the whole story. Social determinants of health – socioeconomic factors that can influence health outcomes – are widely recognized to have an impact not just on cancer survivorship but on a person’s ability to access cancer care.

The northwest Toronto community has a variety of socio-economic challenges that need to be addressed to improve cancer outcomes. From a lack of family physicians to language barriers to an incomplete understanding of how the medical system works, there’s no shortage of reasons cancer care is less accessible here. However, the Cancer Care Peer Support Program is one way Humber is addressing some of these challenges.


Peer support groups are not a new concept – plenty of cancer organizations offer one iteration or another. But between travelling to doctor’s appointments at the hospital, and managing treatments and the resulting side effects, the last thing anyone has the energy for is another appointment on the other side of the city. And yet, peer support can make all the difference in a long cancer journey, especially for patients from marginalized communities. That was the motivation behind Humber’s ingenious approach to the concept.

“Many newcomers need more social support because they don’t have a lot of family here,” explains Dr. Carmen Chung, Division Head of Medical Oncology at Humber. “At that point, having someone to share their experience, to support them through their cancer journey, becomes even more important.”

Dr. Carmen Chung

Sakoor, who was diagnosed in 2016 after a gut feeling told her to push for a mammogram, notes that despite a robust support network of family and friends, there’s a unique camaraderie between cancer patients. “There are things I share with my peers within the program that I’ve never talked about with my husband, my best friends or anyone,” she says.

Cameron, who was diagnosed with Stage 4 inflammatory breast cancer in 2019, just weeks after her third child was born, agrees. “There’s a different comfort level between the patients and their peer supporters, especially when there are cultural barriers. Some patients are hesitant to bring up issues with the nurses and doctors, but when they mention them to us, we’re able to catch those red flags and encourage them to bring it to the medical team’s attention.”


What sets Humber apart from other hospitals is its commitment to improving quality of care. One of the ways it does so is by engaging current and former patients to hear their feedback and ideas, both individually and in the form of Patient and Family Advisory Committees (PFACs). In fact, Sakoor and Cameron met through the hospital’s oncology PFAC.

“Humber proactively reaches out and wants to understand the patient experience,” explains Sakoor. “Consistently, Humber is saying, ‘Tell us what you think. How can we make improvements? What can we do differently?’”

It was feedback from Sakoor, Cameron and other patients that spurred Humber to move forward with its peer-to-peer support initiative. Both women, at the end of their treatments, asked their doctors to connect them with any patients looking for camaraderie. Although privacy concerns prevented those connections from happening, the concept served as inspiration for the current program.

“This peer support allows patients to share the experience and also empowers survivors to help other patients along,” notes Dr. Chung. “Initially it’s very difficult, learning how to cope with the diagnosis and being introduced to chemotherapy. Having another patient who has gone through it to guide them makes a tremendous difference.”

Using the hospital’s own innovative digital platform, Healix, the Humber team built an application that allowed patients to connect with their peer volunteers via the chat message function and arrange to speak by phone. The app maintains privacy and data protection that’s essential in healthcare, but it also allows volunteers to make notes that they and the patient’s care team can access with consent when needed.

Humber goes the extra mile by sending these volunteers for training with Wellspring Cancer Support, a Canadian non-profit organization, where they learn basic counselling and communication skills. They also provide documents and manuals to help them navigate difficult topics and use a social worker to match patients with volunteers.

“I like to joke that the program’s clinical co-ordinator is like Chuck Woolery from Love Connection, matching us up,” Sakoor laughs.

This groundbreaking digital approach to cancer care support is turning heads and earning recognition from national health organizations such as Accreditation Canada and the Health Standards Organization. In addition, Sakoor and Cameron have spoken at multiple healthcare conferences about the difference this initiative is making in patients’ lives.


Humber’s commitment to prioritizing local care extends to cancer treatment, as well. Dr. Vighnesh Bharath, Division Head of Hematology at Humber, notes that the oncology department often works closely with the academic hospitals in downtown Toronto to co-ordinate cancer treatments for patients with complex medical needs.

Dr. Vighnesh Bharath

“Our cancer clinic is pretty comprehensive, but we also work in conjunction with other hospitals,” he notes. “So, they’re providing some guidance, but the treatment is here whenever possible, to make it easier on the patient.”

Both Sakoor and Cameron are happy to expound on the many ways Humber listens to its patients and constantly tries to meet the community’s needs. Beyond that, though, it’s evident that when patients are listened to and supported, everyone benefits – the patient, the care team, the hospital and the community.

“It has been wonderful to support other women with cancer, and it’s also been really rewarding for my own journey. It’s part of my own healing,” says Cameron. “I’m honoured to be a part of it and to give back to Humber in any way that I can.”


Pull quote: “Many newcomers need more social support because they don’t have a lot of family here.” – Dr. Carmen Chung


To read our full magazine, Care Closer to Home, click here.