Woman to Watch: Dr. Juanita Crook

Dr. Crook says advancing the brachytherapy treatment in the west involved overcoming considerable challenges.

Dr. Juanita Crook

Juanita Crook’s lifelong love of learning has propelled her to become one of the province’s foremost experts on breast cancer, but her passion for medicine wasn’t immediately obvious in her early life.

“Growing up, I was interested in science and biology, but also literature and languages. I didn’t know I’d pursue medicine until the end of my second year at the University of Toronto—that’s when I decided that the most interesting aspect of biology involved human beings.”

Now a professor of radiation oncology at UBC and an oncologist with the B.C. Cancer Agency, Crook’s career path came about as much by fate as by choice.

“I enjoyed a lot of different specialties and I originally trained to be a general practitioner,” she said. “But due to social circumstances, I had to stay in Toronto for a year after graduating.

“So for that year I worked as a medical assistant at Princess Margaret Hospital and that’s where I first became interested in oncology.”

Through some act of fate, Crook met Dr. Jean-Philippe Pignol at Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto, where she first learned of brachytherapy.

A common treatment for prostate cancer, brachytherapy involves the surgical insertion of radioactive time-release capsules that directly irradiate cancerous cells without harming healthy tissues.

Dr. Pignol had adapted the technique for use in breast cancer cases and together, Pignol and Crook worked on several early treatments.

“When I moved to British Columbia, Dr. Pignol approached me and asked if I’d be interested in establishing that program here. It’s quite a different skill-set. It’s ultrasound-guided and the needle insertion is fairly basic, but the breast is very different from the prostate, so there was a learning curve,” she said.

Crook, who is now well known in the medical community for bringing the treatment west, says that advancing the treatment also involved challenges such as obtaining ethics approval and funding the procedure. The treatment isn’t yet considered a standard approach in breast cancer cases and as a result, it’s typically funded through donations rather than through insurance coverage.But, despite the difficulties, Crook has stayed committed to making the treatment available to the women under her care. An avid runner, she participated in the 2013 BMO Okanagan Marathon and raised $77,000 in donations to fund brachytherapy for breast cancer patients—something that she says is improving patients’ quality of life.

“I was actually somewhat surprised at how successful the fundraising was. As a result, I’ve been able to keep offering women this treatment for early-stage localized breast cancer. The first step (in a standard breast cancer treatment) is to remove the lump and assess the lymph nodes and then radiate the whole breast. But the technique I’ve invented makes it easy to target the tumor.”

Crook says that thanks to brachytherapy, it’s possible to administer a full course of radiation therapy in a single, one-hour outpatient procedure. In contrast, standard radiation procedures typically require a series of daily appointments over the course of three to five weeks.

Crook is also passionate about teaching this new procedure to British Columbia’s next generation of oncologists. As an oncology professor with UBC’s Faculty of Medicine, she is in a prime position to show medical students not only the many benefits of brachytherapy, but also  the many procedures and precautions involved in performing brachytherapy safely and well.

While her work in medicine may be demanding, Crook is committed to living a balanced life and she places a high priority on her physical and mental health. Aside from hiking, canoeing, snowboarding and cross-country skiing, she’s also an avid marathon runner. Crook notes that running marathons is a great way to stay in shape and take time to relax.

In addition to practicing and teaching medicine, Crook works hard to make health knowledge available to the general public. She regularly speaks at information sessions for those looking to learn more about cancer and oncology and she’s a frequent guest speaker at prostate and breast cancer support groups in Kelowna and Vernon.

Throughout her years in practice, one central life lesson has guided her to make successful treatments available to patients and to help her become one of the most respected physicians in her field: Constant analysis.

“Always evaluate the results of what you’re doing in an ongoing way – that’s how you find out where you can improve. That’s how you make a lot of progress.”

Crook’s focus on analysis is what is driving her to start new programs and protocols in cancer research and treatment—and that’s what keeps her interested in her work.

“Research is a big part of what I do and it’s clinical research—it’s not lab-based. It’s keeping track of what the problems are and how to improve them.”

And while her passion for her work is obvious, she says that having a personal life is essential to staying productive and happy. For Dr. Juanita Crook, that looks like hiking, canoeing, painting and snowboarding.

“It’s important to not be too consumed by the work aspect of your life, even if you love it. It’s a huge part of you, yes, but it’s not the only part.”

 

Crowe MacKay’s Women to Watch program is a weekly feature that profiles remarkable women in our community. This feature series is a joint initiative between Crowe MacKay, the Kelowna Chamber of Commerce and the Kelowna Capital News. To nominate the exceptional woman in your life, email womentowatch@kelownachamber.org.