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Dr. Margot Burnell

Doctor’s patients inspire her work: Local oncologist to be recognized at Rotary Club’s Evening of Inspiration gala

Saint John • Dr. Margot Burnell’s source of inspiration comes directly from the people she sees every day: her patients.

The Saint John Regional Hospital oncologist has spent almost three decades in the city working with cancer patients and survivors and while she encourages them through their journeys, it’s from her patients that she draws her inspiration.

After finishing her fellowship in England, Burnell moved to Saint John. In July she’ll celebrate 29 years at the Saint John Regional Hospital, with her easily remembering her start date. This is her first hospital outside of medical school and she said she’s simply blossomed in the Port City.

Burnell is being recognized for her work in cancer treatment and research at the Rotary Club of Saint John’s An Evening of Inspiration gala Thursday night.

“I’m very honoured and delighted and very shocked.”

Burnell, along with local humanitarian Judith Irving, is being named to the Rotary Club’s Paul Harris Fellowship. Also speaking Thursday is Kim Phuc, who’s best known as the subject of a Pulitzer Prize-winning photo shot during the Vietnam war. She’ll be speaking about staying strong in the face of adversity.

Burnell is clinical department head of the oncology department at the hospital and runs a practice.
She’s also heavily involved with clinical trials and has contributed to more than 50 in her career.

“I’ve been actively involved in and firmly believe in research and empowering patients to consider participating in that,”she said.

Burnell recruits patients for the trials in addition to doing research She’s currently leading a large study into breast cancer with co-chair Dr Mark Levine, an oncologist at McMaster University. The trial involves researching a genetic profile which can predict a patient’s lapse-free survival.

The study is what Burnell calls a preventive measures trial. It researches people who have cancer and are at risk of it coming back. They’re trying to discover what genetic profiles will benefit the most from treatments.
Burnell said she’s obsessed with evidence-based treatments and that’s part of why she participates in so many clinical trials.

“If something works all the time and has no side effects then you don’t need to prove anything. If a treatment does have side effects but could make someone feel better we want to test that.”

In addition to her continued research into cancer treatments, she and her staff have established a survivorship program to help patients during that period. Burnell recognizes it as an important part of the process.

“We work on the principle that as soon as you’re diagnosed, you’re classified as a survivor. We know that once they go through treatment people have physical, psychological impacts,” she said.

The program operates with two elements. Firstly they provide education to patients and inform them of how their lives will change. Burnell said that can range from physical, to mental, to sexual education.
They also use an exercise program to encourage wellness. People who live healthy lifestyles can sometimes make changes easier, she said.

The program was officially unveiled at a mental health press conference held by the Saint John Regional Hospital Foundation a few weeks ago. The crowd gave Burnell a standing ovation for her efforts but she said it’s simple to her.

“People need to get back to their normal lives.”

They also operate a group for the partners of cancer survivors to help them maintain control of their lives and adjust to the changes happening around them.

The Rotary gala is about inspiration and Burnell said she finds it every day in her work.

“The inspiration comes from our patients and families. I think that’s what encourages many oncologists to continue in their fields and to give back is that they are inspired. I would like to recognize that with this honour.”
She said she doesn’t work alone and her team should be recognized as well, for they’re partly responsible for her passion.

“I represent a team in the oncology department in the regional hospital who are just fantastic.I think the inspiration comes from them just to do our best every day for those individuals.”