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This St. Thomas, Ont., woman is using her breast cancer journey to educate other patients

Oct 03, 2023

Catharine Janssen of St. Thomas, Ont., believes that getting breast cancer four years ago was one of the best things that could've happened to her.

This is because getting treatment during the pandemic made Janssen, a registered nurse by profession, realize how many other cancer patients struggle with managing their post-surgical care like handling fluids draining from their bodies. She had a double mastectomy in 2019.

Women will often need a tube inserted into their chest to drain excess fluid after removing a breast, as fluid can build up causing discomfort and interfering with healing.

"I'm a nurse so I know how to manage drains well but every time I turned around, I was getting them caught on doorknobs and holders and it drove me crazy," she said.

"I was really concerned about the safety of other patients and it got me thinking that if I'm struggling with drainage and getting my care together, what are other patients facing?"

It led Janssen to get a certificate in cancer coaching, that she now uses to educate others on cancer awareness and prevention, with a focus on wellness, healthy food choices and managing the impacts of stress on the body.

"I really wanted to educate them on how they can manage their care while they're in hospital because that knowledge for them is powerful and helps them be confident in the choices that they make," she said.

She also noticed there weren't many clothing options for women with large post-surgical drains that are comfortable or fashionable, motivating her to start BRACA Shirts so patients can hold their drains in cotton shirts and gowns, allowing them to feel confident in their bodies.

Janssen said she didn't feel as though she had the full attention of healthcare professionals during her treatment due to the pressures the system was facing at the time. With this in mind, she wanted to work very closely with her clients so they can feel supported in their journey.

"That was the one thing I really struggled with as a patient because I felt that I was rushed through the process since you're just a number in the system when they're seeing lots of patients on a daily basis," said Janssen.

Although Janssen is grateful she didn't have to go through chemotherapy or radiation since her cancer was detected in the first stage, she understands how disheartening it can be for patients to see their bodies change as a result of treatment, she said.

"It's not easy to look at the disfiguration," Janssen said. "It's not only physically painful, but the psychological adjustment can be quite traumatic."

Wearing her shirts has evoked a sense of confidence among her clients scattered throughout Canada and in New York. Currently they sell for about $125 including shipping and taxes, but Janssen hopes that through her educational programs, she can raise enough funds to be able to donate the shirts to those in need.

Janssen's coaching has allowed patients to form their own support groups and make positive health changes to their lives, so they can feel a sense of community in their recovery, she said.

"When they can feel good about the decisions they're making, they can advocate for their care with ease and confidence. I hope I can help my clients to move past their surgery and focus on a healthy lifestyle," she said.


Isha Bhargava is a multiplatform reporter for CBC News. She's worked for Ontario newsrooms in Toronto and London. She loves telling current affairs and human interest stories. You can reach her at [email protected]