Alberta Cancer Foundation

Fiona Garforth-Bles Helps Patients Navigate Through Their Cancer Journey

Fiona Garforth-Bles photographed by Jared Sych.

When Mary Paston was diagnosed with cancer in December 2017, she went through what many people experience when they first receive such news: shock, sadness, fear and a sense of worry about what her course of treatment would look like. A resident of Banff, Paston did her first round of treatment at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre in Calgary, but the large facility and its distance from her home did little to alleviate her stress.

Luckily, Paston had Fiona Garforth-Bles in her corner, a dedicated oncology nurse who set her on a path toward a more personalized cancer care experience. Before Paston even had that first treatment in Calgary, her oncologist had referred her case to Garforth-Bles, who called Paston to let her know that she’d been assigned as her “patient navigator” and would be helping her through her treatment journey.

Based primarily out of the Bow Valley Community Cancer Centre in Canmore (she also works casually out of the Tom Baker), Garforth-Bles, in her role as an Alberta Cancer Foundation patient navigator (part of a nurse navigator program largely made possible thanks to the generosity of Foundation donors), ensures that her patients receive treatment in the most comfortable way possible while addressing their questions and
concerns thoughtfully and compassionately.

Garforth-Bles helps to triage and coordinate care with oncologists and other doctors, transition patients through various stages of treatment, and provides education to patients and their families, all while offering genuine moral support. Garforth-Bles worked out of the Foothills Medical Centre and the Tom Baker Cancer Centre as an oncology nurse for 30 years before transferring to Canmore four years ago, taking on the patient navigator role two years ago. “I wanted to become a navigator, as the role is very involved with the patient and their family,” she says. “It utilizes all my 35 years of previous experience as a treatment nurse, bedside oncology nurse and palliative care nurse.”

Garforth-Bles’s familiarity with the Tom Baker Cancer Centre has helped her in her role, as doctors there trust her and feel confident referring patients her way and allowing them to undergo chemotherapy at the Bow Valley Community Cancer Centre, which is smaller, quieter and offers a different level of personalized care. When oncologists in Calgary know that a patient lives in the Bow Valley and is eligible for treatment at the Canmore centre, they will refer the patient to Garforth-Bles, who, in turn, contacts the patient directly and explains her role as navigator.

“We know our patients very well here,” Garforth-Bles says. “The area where they have their treatment looks out onto the mountains, it’s got big windows, it is really lovely. We have a guitarist come and play music on our treatment days. There are only four treatment chairs, so we have some time to sit and talk.”

Paston says that being able to receive treatment closer to home has been invaluable, but it’s the less tangible aspects of Garforth-Bles’s role that mean the most to her.

“She truly cares about her people,” Paston says. “She knows the names of my grandkids and my husband, and she shares things about her own life. She’s not just a nurse, she’s a human being with a big heart. I trust her implicitly.”

While Garforth-Bles sees her patient navigator position as the ideal way to apply her decades of experience, she has other aspirations, too, such as helping to establish a hospice in the Bow Valley, and building more awareness of patient navigator services. Meanwhile, she’s happy to continue helping patients through the process of treatment and recovery.

“I feel this position brings everything I’ve done in oncology full circle,” she says. “I am coming toward the end of my career, so it’s a fantastic job to get my teeth into, but also to think about what more I can do for patients.”